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Space Worms Did Not Survive Mission; Students Continue Project

PHILADELPHIA (November 12, 1998) -- The tiny worms called C. elegans (See ella'-ganz) sent into space on board the space shuttle Discovery did not survive the entire trip, and it is unclear when they died. The worms were one part of a space science project being conducted by eight students at Northeast High School in Philadelphia with the help of Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Northeast High School was invited by Instrumentation Technology Associates, Inc. (ITA), an Exton, Pa., company, to include their experiments on the company's CIBX-1 (Commercial ITA Biomedical Experiments) payload on the Shuttle Discovery.

For the project, the students, their teacher Dr. Richard Black and Fox Chase researcher Eric Moss, Ph.D. decided to examine the aging process in space using the tiny worms. In the study, the students hoped to discover whether space travel would alter the life span of the worms. On Earth, the worms live about 18 days.

A small tube containing about 1,000 worms were taken to Florida on October 24 to be loaded onto the shuttle. The tube was sealed and turned over to ITA scientists. ITA scientists transferred the solution of worms to a compartment contained within their equipment, which was then placed on Discovery. The worms were sealed in liquid and not exposed to the air inside the shuttle to prevent the liquid from floating free in the weightlessness of orbit. A tube of control worms was also sealed in liquid and remained in Philadelphia.

"We examined the control tube the day before Discovery's landing," said Eric Moss, Ph.D., the Fox Chase Cancer Center research scientist helping the students. "The lack of oxygen experienced by both groups of worms was the major concern at this point. Without opening the tube, we estimated the remaining viable worms to be 50% of the total population. This seemed remarkably good considering the length of time they had been without fresh oxygen."

The worms sent into space were brought back to Philadelphia on Wednesday, November 11, when the worms were retrieved from ITA. Both the control and experimental tubes were opened and examined the worms in the microscope. Moss estimated that 2% of the worms in the control group were alive. There were no detectable living worms in the experimental group.

Moss said, "Because there is only a small difference between the number of viable worms in the two groups, we are unable to draw a conclusion about whether space travel per se affected the health of the worms. However, we can definitely learn some things. We believe the last few days were critical. The conditions for the experiment might have been ideal if the space flight had been shorter or we were able to shorten the lead and follow-up times. We will discuss how environments for living things are controlled in space, and how we would imagine making space travel for worms more natural if this experiment were to be tried again in the future."

The Northeast High School Worm Project will continue with the genetic experiments that will involve long-lived and short-lived mutants of C. elegans. Students will measure the lifespans of worms in each population and compare them.

Moss explained, "We will mate the two mutant populations together and measure the life-span of their progeny. To my knowledge, this will be the first time this particular hybridization experiment is performed in any laboratory."

C. elegans are not new to the science world. Scientists have been studying them since the early 1960s. C. elegans is the only animal for which the entire cell lineage is known from fertilized egg to adult. It is also the only animal for which the entire wiring of its nervous system is known. This year, it will be the first animal to have its entire genome sequenced. The life processes of these worms are similar to those of humans.

The Northeast High School students, Dr. Black and Dr. Moss watched the Shuttle launch from the NASA Causeway on October 29. Discovery landed on November 7.

Fox Chase Cancer Center is one of 34 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation. The Center's activities include basic and clinical research, prevention, detection and treatment of cancer and community outreach programs.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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