“They don't send new astronauts to the moon”

Molecular biologist and astronaut Sara García (Leon, 1989) participated in the presentation of the new edition of the Ada Byrne Prize, which distinguishes women in the field of science and technology, at the University of Duesto in Bilbao. She received it last year along with Maria Jose Escalona, ​​an expert in software engineering. García, the first Spanish woman to go to space, works in the experimental oncology group led by Mariano Barbazit at the National Cancer Research Center (CNIO).

– You are an astronaut on ESA reserve. what is it

– Europe has very limited ability to send European astronauts on manned flights, as SpaceX is currently the only company carrying humans into space. All NASA astronauts, all astronauts and all European astronauts. You can't go to space anytime soon. There must be an opportunity and a path in those spacecraft. Because Europe cannot guarantee this in the short term, it has created this reserve. What it doesn't do is cover the cost of training, or paying a crew of astronauts. what happened? The space industry is growing exponentially.

– So…

– Know these opportunities are going to come, but don't know when. Hence reservation. The moment there is a mission, a flight opportunity, the reserve astronaut steps in. There is a tendency to hire reserve astronauts to speak as project astronauts. Pablo (Alvarez) and four other career astronauts of the same class with him are ESA personnel and will remain astronauts until they retire. We, Reserves, will train through the program. This means that Pablo will have several space missions, probably six months each, while we will have missions of 15 days, 20, a month, depending on the needs of the mission. For example, two of the astronauts in my class, Markus Wandt from Sweden and Slavos Usnansky from Poland, have already been assigned to missions.

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– They will fly.

– Actually Markus is now on the International Space Station (ISS) on the Axiom 3 mission, Slawosz will go on the Axiom 4 mission. Something similar happens in my case.

– You are a scientist and the ISS is an orbiting laboratory where many scientific studies are carried out. What are the benefits of working in microgravity?

– Certain physical processes that occur on Earth due to gravity cannot take place in microgravity. Convection, sedimentation etc. do not take place there. All mixing occurs by diffusion. What does this translate to? It can explore new properties of materials, create new materials, new metal compounds, new crystal formulas, with properties that cannot be replicated on Earth.

– Some example?

– Two examples already done as part of the ISS results published by NASA in 2022. Artificial retinas have already been developed precisely on the ISS for this capability, allowing the creation of homogeneous layers of photosynthetic proteins. It cannot be reproduced here in that level of purity. And crystalline formulations for new drugs allow for more convenient administration to patients. For example, one injection instead of hours of chemotherapy cycles.

– You are dedicated to the molecular biology of cancer. Has anything already been done in your particular field?

– Many things have been done. For 20 years, protein crystal growth has been carried out as larger and higher purity crystals are achieved in microgravity. Then, with a crystallographic technique based on X-rays, you understand the three-dimensional structure of that protein, which could be a therapeutic target in cancer, as I study. If you know all the ins and outs of that therapeutic target, you can design a drug against it to use in patients with that altered protein.

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– If, as a scientist, you could design your own spaceship, a la carte, what would it look like?

– I will never design it alone: ​​it seems to me that I will lose a lot. I will try to get a large number of thinking minds and scientists on board to work on this to see what are the best ideas that can be implemented and taken forward. I, because of my passion for dedicating myself to oncology research, want to focus on what I do and focus on my work. As I work precisely on protein crystal growth and three-dimensional structures for drug design, I will try to do some of that.

– Working on drug development against pancreatic and lung tumors.

– Yes, common to these two types of cancer, at first glance they don't seem to offer much, the origin, the mutation that drives them, the cause of their formation is the same. It's a mutation in an oncogenic gene called K-RAS, whose discovery Dr. Mariano Barbazit was involved in.

– Your boss.

– In fact, he is the main researcher of the group I work with. This cancer was discovered in the 1980s and almost 40 years later there is still no cure, although the mutation in this cancer accounts for 25% of all human cancers.

– So?

– The line of research that I carry out is based on the search for therapeutic targets, that is, molecules in cancer cells that have been changed by that mutation found in the laboratory, while removing them from this type of cancer. Tumors become smaller. As we have seen in transgenic mouse models. What we want now is to translate that into something that can be delivered to patients. Because we can't remove a gene from a patient, but we can give them a drug that has the same effect. Developing that drug requires understanding at a three-dimensional level what it is to isolate that therapeutic target and see where we can throw that dart that destroys it.

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– Do you see yourself on the moon? Indeed, of course.

– (Laughs) Why not? Yes, I think the situation could evolve. I think in the future, in 10, 15 or 20 years, it will be more established and more likely to go to the moon. Of course, going to the moon requires experience first. They don't send new astronauts. So, first I'm going to focus on the 400 kilometer, low orbit, and once I become a low orbit astronaut, I can think about the moon. But gradually.

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