Connecting the Dots | Future space drugs

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Pioneering space research is opening a new avenue for combating some of Earth’s most complex and devastating diseases.

The National Stem Cell Foundation secured funding early this year to cover spaceflight costs for a launch around the end of 2023 to the ISS, where it will test drugs for Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS) for the first time in orbit.

It will be the fifth mission to the ISS for the foundation, which has been supporting first-of-a-kind neurodegeneration studies on the space station since 2019 to get to this point.

Cells behave very differently in space. Proteins do not fold in the same way, cartilage grows faster — and, of particular interest to the foundation’s researchers, cells can be seen interacting with each other in 3D in a way that’s impossible back on Earth.

Its research uses constructs derived from skin or blood cells from people with Parkinson’s disease and progressive MS called organoids that have been re-programmed to mimic brain cells.

Because the microgravity environment on the ISS gives researchers access to how these cells interact, they have the chance to see where things go wrong and test new drugs or cell therapies to stop that from happening.

“You can simulate microgravity in a laboratory by centrifuge, but those cells are confused,” says Paula Grisanti, the foundation’s CEO, “and if you’re looking under a microscope on Earth, they’re slightly flattened.”

The hope is to help find treatments for Parkinson’s and MS, which Grisanti says for the United States alone costs the economy about $137 billion annually.

And any headway into treating them could also have a knock-on impact on other neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and ALS.

While there are millions of people who have Parkinson’s and MS, the foundation’s work also has implications further afield.

“We’re going to be flying people to the Moon and Mars for long duration stays,” Grisanti says, “and the ability to understand how neurodegeneration begins or can be stopped is important for astronaut health too.”

The National Stem Cell Foundation also funds research for orthopedic diseases that could benefit from space-based studies.

“That’s an area I would like to explore further,” she said, adding: “If we already know that cartilage grows faster in space, how can we use that information?

“What kind of an experiment could you fly with cartilage cells to rebuild knees, rather than have knee replacements?”

As the cost to access space declines, companies have been investigating ways to manufacture other constructs in orbit.

Crystals are more uniform in microgravity, which could support the development of fiber optic cables. Goodyear is investigating ways to make better rubber in space, and Budweiser has sent hops to the ISS as part of efforts to improve production.

Pharmaceutical companies could also one day produce drugs from orbit.

“I think that research in space will be big for the pharmaceutical industry,” Grisanti adds, not least because it offers the “opportunity to make drugs differently or improve their production.”

However, costs to send resources to and from orbit need to be significantly lower to make this a reality.

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.