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Tomorrow Today

Looking for cures in space for parasite-caused disease


In this story:

November 5, 1998
Web posted at: 2:43 p.m. EST (1943 GMT)

(CNN) -- NASA scientists are looking to space to help find a cure to a Latin American disease that infects millions of people a year and kills thousands.

Chagas disease affects mainly rural areas in Latin America. It is spread by bugs that live in walls, ceilings or floors of poorly constructed homes and buildings. The bugs carry a parasite, which people contract through bug droppings in their eyes, mouth or cuts in the skin.

An infected patient may feel sick and feverish for weeks, then seem fine for years. But, experts warn, while the patient appears fine, the parasite is damaging tissue and organs -- particularly the heart.

U.S. astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, a native of Costa Rica, suggested five years ago that NASA scientists explore ways to fight Chagas disease.

Chang-Diaz thought that advancements in Chagas disease research could be made by using concepts from drug experiments previously done in space.

Shuttle scientists have been using the weightless environment in space to create crystals that can yield the internal structure of any substance scientists are looking for, Chang-Diaz told CNN. (Audio 392 K/16 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

infected girl
A girl infected with Chagas disease
NASA scientists are studying the Latin American disease known as chagas
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The bark of the bursera simaruba already is used for skin ailments
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Crystals produced in space are often much better than crystals produced on Earth because they form without interference from gravity. A better-formed crystal gives the researchers a better look at the molecules, so they can design a molecule to fit it perfectly.


NASA has dubbed its search for a cure to Chagas disease ChagaSpace, and is utilizing scientists from South and Central America and the United States.

In their experiments, the scientists are collecting and analyzing plants from rain forests, which are full of complex chemicals.

One plant being closely analyzed is a tree, found in Costa Rica, called bursera simaruba.

"It's also called the American Tourist, because it's always red and peeling," said Bert Kohlmann of Earth College in Costa Rica. "But it's very well-known in popular medicine because the bark is used for skin ailments."

Scientists say that rich compounds from the bursera tree and other rain forest plants are being flown to space where they are being crystallized in hopes of finding an antidote to Chagas disease.

To test potential drugs, scientists design a drug on a computer, or they get a drug from the rain forest plants. They then test the drug against the crystallized compounds from the plants and the proteins from the parasite, as well as mixtures of the two.

Scientists peel bark from the bursera tree  

Ideally, the researchers hope to find an antidote that will interfere with the parasite's life and eventually kill it.

Similar drug research done in space has already led to new medicines now in use against AIDS and high blood pressure.

Researchers now look forward to the day the International Space Station is completed, so they can conduct crystallization experiments in micro gravity for weeks at a time.

Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report.

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