Space-Powered Drugs - Fighting Disease from Outer Space

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The National Stem Cell Foundation is leading the way in space-based research to combat debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis (MS).

With funding secured early this year, the foundation will launch a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) at the end of 2023 to test drugs for these conditions for the first time in orbit.

This will be the foundation’s fifth mission to the ISS, which has been conducting pioneering neurodegeneration studies on the space station since 2019. Thanks to the ISS’s microgravity environment, researchers can observe how cells interact in a way that is not possible on Earth. This allows them to identify what went wrong and why, as well as test new drugs or cell therapies to prevent further deterioration.

The research conducted by the foundation utilises specially engineered organoids, created by reprogramming skin or blood cells sourced from individuals affected by Parkinson’s disease and progressive multiple sclerosis. These organoids are designed to mimic the characteristics of brain cells, providing a unique model for studying the underlying mechanisms of these conditions. The organisation hopes that by studying these cells in the microgravity environment, they will find treatments that can help not only the millions of people affected by Parkinson’s and MS, but also other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS.

According to Paula Grisanti, the foundation’s CEO, “You can simulate microgravity in a laboratory by centrifuge, but those cells are confused, and if you’re looking under a microscope on Earth, they’re slightly flattened.” She added that “the ability to understand how neurodegeneration begins or can be stopped is important for astronaut health too.”

Additionally, the foundation’s research has implications for astronaut health as well, as space agencies plan for long-duration stays on the Moon and Mars. The foundation is also dedicated to supporting research that seeks to unlock the potential benefits of space-based studies for orthopedic diseases. One area of focus is the investigation of cartilage growth, with the aim of developing new and innovative treatments for knee replacements and other joint-related conditions.

Grisanti said “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 of access to space continues to decrease, companies are also exploring ways to manufacture other constructs in orbit, such as more uniform crystals for fiber optic cables and better rubber for tires. The pharmaceutical industry could also potentially produce drugs from orbit, offering the opportunity for new and improved drug production.

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

The National Stem Cell Foundation’s pioneering research in space is a significant step forward in the fight against debilitating diseases. This project has the potential to revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry. With costs to send resources to and from orbit expected to decrease in the future, the possibilities for this type of research are endless.