WHITING — A Calumet College of St. Joseph team is preparing an out-of-this-world experiment members hope will provide useful information in the fight against Alzheimer's disease.

The experiment is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX rocket early next year, then spend four weeks on the International Space Station completing an automated test concerning the peptide associated with Alzheimer's, and the way it behaves in the absence of gravity.

Four Calumet College students and two area high school students are working under the guidance of professors Sandra Chimon Rogers and Ahmed Lakhani on the project, set for launch in February 2017.

The beta amyloid peptide can "misfold," then stack up and lead to an accumulation of plaque and then Alzheimer's, Rogers said.

"There are a number of things that can affect the way the peptide folds," Rogers said. "We don't know how it's going to act in an anti-gravity environment."

Rogers has studied Alzheimer's, focusing on finding a preventative, since 2001, when she was in graduate school.

The students involved in the experiment are Calumet College's Allen Walker, Jennifer Diaz, Elena Cortes and Jake Hayes, and high school students Shana Triplett, from Lockport Township High in Illinois, and Merrick Jakelski, from Valparaiso High.

"We have the background knowledge," Rogers said of Lakhani and herself, but "they do everything."

The project was chosen a year ago to be part of a Center for the Advancement of Science in Space program, with partners including the Boy Scouts of America Pathway to Adventure Council, Texas A&M University and the company NanoRacks.

The Calumet College team presented the progress it's made thus far to representatives of those organizations recently at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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Does lack of gravity affect peptide?

The project's challenges include the minimal amount of space available on the station, and NASA criteria ensuring one experiment doesn't interfere with another.

The general responsibilities include instrument-building; Walker, Hayes and Jakelski are working on that. The biological aspects, including preparing the peptide and the solution it will be in, is the focus for Hayes, Cortes, Diaz and Triplett. Triplett also is handling the project's website.

Jakelski is a Science Olympiad participant at Valparaiso.

"I have a big interest in technology," he said. He's recently worked on some of the hardware interfaces for the project.

The project box — measuring 10 by 10 by 15 centimeters — will include four cuvettes, which are the containers that hold the peptide and solution; a base for the cuvettes, generated by a 3D printer; small motors to vibrate the cuvettes to mix the peptides and solution, and a motor to rotate the cuvette holder; the infrared light to shine through the cuvettes; and a detector to read the light passing through the cuvettes.

"What we're looking for is a change in the intensity of the light that goes through," Rogers said. That will allow them to evaluate the impact of the lack of gravity on the peptide's behavior.

The experiment must be fully prepared on delivery to the Kennedy Space Center. The group hopes to have its work done in August, before school starts. They hope to be able to raise the money to travel to Florida for the launch.

Then, they'll wait to receive the data in hope of seeing a difference in the way the peptide behaves.

"We have our hypotheses. We just have to let it run and compare the data," Walker said.


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Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.