Crystal Quest

Larry DeLucas, Ph.D.
After 13 days and 221 orbits, Larry DeLucas returned to Earth with more than 300 crystal samples, which helped lay the groundwork for dramatically improved drugs for diseases from AIDS to diabetes

It was a small step for man, but a giant leap for protein science when UAB researcher Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D., shot into orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia on June 25, 1992. DeLucas—the first optometrist in space—conducted experiments on protein crystal growth that were an important step in the drug discovery process for treating AIDS and other devastating diseases.

Crystallizing proteins allows scientists to study their structures in three dimensions using X rays—and thereby gain a greater understanding of their biological function and roles in various diseases. UAB has long been a leader in the field; in 1985, UAB biochemist Charles E. Bugg, Ph.D., founded the UAB Center for Macromolecular Crystallography, and it was Bugg who made the NASA connections that started DeLucas on his journey for the stars.

Since his return to Earth, DeLucas has become an internationally known crystallographer, was inducted into the National Optometry Hall of Fame, and has received numerous awards and honors, including a Presidential Award from the President of Brazil and the NASA Public Service Medal. As the director of UAB’s Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering (CBSE), one of the world’s largest structure-based drug discovery facilities, DeLucas remains a leader in X-ray crystallography research and technology development on Earth—and in space, where the CBSE-developed GLACIER cryogenic freezer is currently being used aboard NASA space shuttles.


Read more breakthrough stories in UAB Magazine.