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Experiment will be out of this world for Hauptman-Woodward scientists

Eddie and Elizabeth Snell had Valentine's Day plans that were out of this world.

Now, they'll just have to celebrate like everybody else.

The head of Buffalo's Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute and his wife, a molecular biologist, are working on research to refine a method to use space to help provide knowledge to design the drugs of the future.

An experiment they have both worked on was scheduled to launch into space Tuesday, but the launch has been pushed back until later this week because of weather.

That did not dampen their Valentine's Day spirits.

"Oh well, guess it’s a regular Valentine’s Day present for Elizabeth," quipped Eddie Snell, president and CEO of Hauptman-Woodward on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. "There are not too many times that you can take something produced by your spouse and turn them into crystals grown in space."

Snell drove to Erie, Pa., late Thursday to hand off packets of frozen liquid crystallization solutions made by his wife, a Hauptman-Woodward molecular biologist and research assistant, to a team from NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. From there, the frozen samples were to be taken to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The plan is for the solution to be launched in a frozen state aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX to the International Space Station later this week.

A biophysicist, Snell travels the world conducting research in structural biology, including crystallography, which examines the atomic structures of molecules.

Snell was proud of the fact that his wife produced the samples headed into space. Before he drove them to Erie, he donned big, blue gloves Thursday afternoon and gently pulled the tightly sealed packages containing the solutions from a lab freezer.

Elizabeth Snell, molecular biologist and Hauptman-Woodward Institute research assistant. (Courtesy of HWI)

While it's not the first time that Buffalo samples from Hauptman-Woodward have been in space, it still ignites excitement each time something heads upward.

These particular solutions will be kept on the International Space Station for the best opportunity to thaw them, start the experiment and watch the results from the ground. That will go on right in Buffalo.

Snell said the astronauts will put the experiment on a microscope and then staff at Hauptman-Woodward will be able to see the images live as the experiment runs, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes.

At Hauptman-Woodward, he is trying to identify which samples will grow better and which will not. "In space, liquids flow differently, and sometimes, but not all the time, crystals grow much better," said Snell, who previously worked as a staff scientist at NASA before coming to Buffalo to head Hauptman-Woodward.

The experiment on the International Space Station will test his prediction.

Growing crystals and studying them with X-rays allows the scientists to reveal their shape. "Almost," Snell said, "like opening up the hood of a car to see how the engine works."

"The better the crystal, the better detail that can be seen, and the more complete understanding we get," Snell said. "The faster we can design a new drug."

Once the experiment is concluded, the crystals will be returned to earth to be studied further.

"We don't know when the crystals will be returned yet," Snell said. "We will time our experiment to coincide with bringing the crystal back when their growth has finished. They will splash down in the Pacific, and we'll be on the West Coast to pick them up."

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