Saliva and oral bacteria from 30 patients at the UNLV dental clinic will take off on a rocket to the International Space Station on Thursday.
Researchers from the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering and School of Dental Medicine UNLV are teaming up with NASA and Colgate-Palmolive to study the growth of oral bacteria in space and to see if oral care products -Colgate’s teeth are effective in a microgravity environment.
Test kits created by the university will be aboard SpaceX CRS-22, which will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a cargo refueling mission.
Two of the UNLV researchers involved in the project – Jeffrey Ebersole, associate dean of research at the School of Dentistry, and mechanical engineering researcher Shengjie (Patrick) Zhai – will be on site for the rocket launch Thursday. .
Ebersole said by phone Wednesday that he never imagined in his wildest dreams that he would be in Florida watching a rocket launch. “It’s really cool.”
Zhai said his childhood dream was to become an astronaut. “However, you know, I can’t do this. Tomorrow my dream came true in another way.
This is the first private sector “oral care experiment” to be sent to the International Space Station, Colgate-Palmolive said in a May 25 press release.
The company designed the experiment, and it is the first of several space research projects in partnership with the US National Laboratory on the International Space Station.
The experiment “will simulate bacterial growth on a tooth-like surface,” Colgate-Palmolive said in its statement.
Test kits created by UNLV engineers include 3D printed, battery-powered microfluidic pump devices.
The experiment will help scientists learn more about “the growth and metabolism of oral biofilms, which in our mouths take the form of dental plaque that can lead to cavities and gum disease,” the statement said.
“Colgate’s goal is to reimagine a healthier future for everyone, their pets and the planet,” Pat Verduin, chief technology officer at Colgate-Palmolive, said in the statement. “We’re constantly striving to push the boundaries of research and development – and now we’re going even deeper, into space. Our unique partnership with ISS National Lab and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas will help us go beyond what is expected, beyond what is known and even beyond our planet to test and accelerate the oral health science.
The crew aboard the International Space Station is expected to begin experiments on the samples on Monday, Ebersole said.
Researchers at Colgate-Palmolive and UNLV have undergone substantial training to prepare to participate in live video feeds with the team as they experiment to answer questions that may arise, Ebersole said. .
After about a month in space, the samples will be sent back to Earth. They will be analyzed and compared to samples of bacteria left on Earth.
Analysis of the samples will be performed by UNLV – physically in the university labs and using business partners. The process, Ebersole said, will likely take around 60 days.
The UNLV developed an experience proposal about three years ago and was selected after a rigorous review process.
Alabama-based Teledyne Brown Engineering, which has a relationship with UNLV as an engineering mentoring group, has informed the university of the possibility of submitting a proposal, Ebersole said. A team of payload specialists from the engineering company are working with Colgate-Palmolive and UNLV on the project.
Researchers suffered delays during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, scientists were unable to access their labs for about five months at UNLV, Ebersole said.
UNLV dental researchers John Gallob and Lacey Rahmig collected samples from 30 patients who were already coming for different types of dental care and agreed to participate in the research project.
The patients were divided into three groups: 10 people with “good oral health”, 10 with cavities and 10 with gum disease. The samples were taken using a dental tool called a scaler.
The last sample from a patient was collected in late February 2020 just before “hell broke loose” with the COVID-19 pandemic, Ebersole said. The samples were kept frozen for almost a year.
Zhai and Hui Zhao, engineering professor at UNLV, developed the test kits. A 3D printer was used to mass-produce the kits, Zhai said, and the end product had to meet certain NASA requirements.
The kits will allow automatic operation in space and require no human intervention.
Developing the test kits during the pandemic has been a challenge, Ebersole said. “The supply chains were broken. It was not easy to get the things we needed.