In a small lab, squeezed into the nook of a skyscraper in downtown Tel Aviv, Israeli entrepreneur Yossi Yamin is proudly holding what he calls “somewhat James Bond-style suitcase manufacturing facility, powered by the solar”.
As with lots of 007’s best contraptions, preliminary impressions are inauspicious. However prior to now 4 years, these little metallic containers, coated in photo voltaic panels, have repeatedly blasted into orbit on the again of a SpaceX rocket, bringing groundbreaking new insights again to Earth for issues starting from the behaviour of leukaemia cells to the most effective methods of producing lab-grown steak.
As CEO of SpacePharma – an organization that works with shoppers world wide, from youngsters’s hospitals to massive pharma – Yamin has helped to pioneer a brand new business. Utilizing know-how developed on the Technion, Israel’s oldest college, growing numbers of biologists are in a position to miniaturise their experiments and ship them to the Worldwide House Station (ISS), the place they are often remotely managed from the bottom.
“This isn’t science fiction any extra,” says Yamin. “Final 12 months, we achieved seven in-orbit experiments, and the quantity is rising. Subsequent month, we’re flying 5 experiments into area in realms starting from the way forward for skincare to longevity medicine and mind ailments.”
The concept of leaving Earth to additional drugs goes again to the daybreak of the area age. Needing a means of justifying the big value of launching as many as 50 flights a 12 months, Nasa prompt that its astronauts may multitask, utilizing their time in orbit to pursue a treatment for most cancers or the various different sicknesses afflicting humankind.
It’s the absence of gravity that has lengthy made area such a lovely playground for teasing aside a few of biology’s intricacies. The pull of the Earth’s gravitational discipline can masks a few of the methods by which cells talk, making it tougher to know why they behave as they do. Gravity makes it much more complicated to maintain stem cells of their purest and most helpful state for prolonged durations, always nudging them and inspiring them to develop. It additionally makes it way more tough for scientists to review the complicated crystal constructions of key proteins, for instance these linked to most cancers, viruses, genetic problems and coronary heart illness. Rising these fragile crystals from scratch is essential for analysing how a tumour or a virus evolves, or detecting little pockets the place a brand new drug may sit. However when they’re grown on Earth, gravity tugs at them, obscuring how they actually look.
“Studying concerning the 3D construction of proteins concerned in sure well being circumstances may give us a greater understanding of how their perform might be improved or inhibited,” says Prof Thais Russomano, an area drugs skilled, and CEO of thinktank InnovaSpace. “Crystals develop greater in area and have fewer imperfections. We will get some concept by way of computer-generated simulations, however correct fashions can solely be created by having a number of information, which we don’t at all times have.”
This has already yielded main breakthroughs. For Massachusetts–primarily based biotech firm MicroQuin, a sequence of experiments performed on the ISS prior to now 4 years have helped kickstart a brand new pipeline of medicine for ovarian and breast cancers, in addition to traumatic mind harm, Parkinson’s, and even influenza, primarily based on a household of proteins known as TMBIMs.
Scientists have lengthy wished to focus on TMBIMs with medicine as a result of they assist regulate a cell’s inner surroundings. In sure cancers and neurodegenerative ailments, this surroundings turns into poisonous, and these proteins might be used as a swap to reverse these modifications – if sufficient is thought about easy methods to manipulate them. However whereas gravity has made TMBIMs notoriously tough to crystallise on Earth, MicroQuin has been ready to take action in area.
“The potential is fascinating,” says Scott Robinson, MicroQuin’s founder and CEO. “Influenza is an effective instance, as a result of when the virus goes inside a cell, it modifications the whole surroundings to be extremely oxidative. However in case you cease that change utilizing TMBIMs, you’ll be able to absolutely cease influenza an infection. It may be used as a mixture remedy to sensitise most cancers cells to immunotherapy.”
Tragedy and triumph
The sector of area drugs was accelerated by one of many worst disasters in Nasa’s historical past. In February 2003, area shuttle Columbia exploded because it re-entered the ambiance over Texas and Louisiana, killing all seven astronauts on board. Harm to the shuttle’s left wing, which had occurred two weeks earlier through the launch, had made it too fragile to resist the big pressures of re-entry.
Three months later, a sequence of vials had been found among the many particles that contained crystals, one way or the other nonetheless intact, from an experiment the Columbia astronauts had been engaged on throughout their time on the ISS. It offered biologists with important info concerning the construction of a protein known as interferon alfa-2b, the energetic ingredient within the drug Intron A, which on the time was a typical therapy for melanoma and hepatitis C.
“This was one of many objectives of the mission,” says Paul Reichert, a drug supply researcher at Merck and a veteran pioneer of area drugs, who consulted on the undertaking. “I used to be so comfortable at the moment, as a result of we had been in a position to provide the households with some optimistic info.”
Curiosity started to develop among the many pharmaceutical business, and in 2017, Reichert was concerned in a mission the place Merck despatched its drug Keytruda – which is used to deal with many alternative cancers, from lung to go and neck – to the ISS. The ensuing information helps the corporate develop a extremely concentrated type of the drug, which might be injected by a GP.
“One of many points with monoclonal antibodies as therapeutics is that they must be given as infusions in hospital settings each few weeks,” says Reichert, who has since suggested Eli Lilly and the Michael J Fox Basis on conducting experiments in area. “It takes a number of hours, whereas an injection takes minutes. So this not solely improves the standard of life for the affected person, but it surely may additionally minimize the price of the remedy.”
Within the coming years, area may additionally remodel one other medical discipline that has been struggling to dwell as much as expectations. Stem cells had been imagined to usher in an period of regenerative drugs, serving to to develop again broken organs and providing new hope to folks with coronary heart or liver failure.
But thus far, scientists have struggled to develop viable remedies. Not solely is the method expensive and inefficient – for each million stem cells grown, solely round 100 will be efficiently reprogrammed right into a coronary heart muscle or liver cell – however the ones which are developed don’t combine nicely when transplanted into the physique.
“The standard of the cells isn’t at all times nice,” says Clive Svendsen, government director of the regenerative drugs institute at Ceders-Sinai in Los Angeles. “They typically decide up abnormalities or develop too slowly. However the query is: are you able to develop a greater cell in orbit?”
Svendsen and his colleagues are looking for out by way of a sequence of experiments in partnership with Nasa. A bag of stem cells is flown to the ISS, the place their development will be noticed from the bottom through a distant video feed. Early indications appear to be that they do flourish higher than on Earth, elevating the chance that in future, stem cell-based therapies may even be manufactured in area.
“It must maintain fairly dramatic advantages over Earth for it to be sensible, as a result of the prices of going up there are so excessive,” says Svendsen. “But when they are often turned extra reliably into coronary heart cells, kidney cells, neurons, of a a lot larger high quality, then maybe you possibly can look into producing cell replacements in area earlier than bringing them again down for transplantation.”
Excessive value, excessive reward
The foremost drawback with doing analysis in area is the price. The value of getting a single experiment to the ISS and again has been reported as being within the area of $7.5m, notably if it consists of astronaut time, a price that’s at the moment coated both by Nasa or analysis grants. It’s also extremely aggressive, with hundreds of scientists world wide vying to have their experiments flown into orbit.
However area analysis is more and more shifting from public to non-public suppliers, a brand new mannequin that presents challenges and alternatives. Nasa has already declared its plan to close down the ISS by the top of 2030, with the Houston-based firm Axiom House intending to interchange it with the primary industrial area station.
Though providing area holidays to the ultra-rich is Axiom House’s principal income mannequin, the cash will probably be used to construct further modules on the area station for conducting scientific experiments. Svendsen predicts that it will create extra alternatives for researchers and pharmaceutical corporations alike, and probably even open the door for manufacturing whole therapies in area.
SpacePharma and different non-public corporations comparable to Ice Cubes are aiming to make medical analysis in area much more broadly accessible by providing to automate experiments, taking them up into low Earth orbit on launch rockets after which again down once more. This removes the necessity for an area station altogether, in addition to reducing prices. “I count on these non-public initiatives to speed up as launch prices scale back and the variety of annual launches worldwide continues to extend,” says Russomano.
However it’s not sensible for everybody. There are tales of corporations, comparable to Boston-based Angiex, which made intriguing breakthroughs referring to a potential new most cancers drug by way of experiments in area earlier than abandoning the work as a result of it was too expensive and time-consuming. Whereas Svendsen is worked up concerning the potential of having the ability to develop stem cells in area, he’s aware that it might be easier to study why they fare higher in zero gravity, after which attempting to copy that on Earth.
“If we discover that they’re differentiating higher in area, and we will perceive the genes that make that occur, we may mimic that down right here by way of Crispr modifying,” he says. “House can be instructing us so much about automating stem cell manufacturing, which has been a battle. If we may use this information to get a system the place you possibly can put 100 cells in and two weeks later get 1bn cells out the opposite aspect, that’s one thing everyone seems to be striving for.”
There are numerous unknowns, but when it transpires that area is the one place to get good high quality stem cells, it’s going to pave the best way to a way forward for regenerating physique components among the many stars.
“Who is aware of, possibly sooner or later we can have satellites flying round rising organs like in a science fiction film,” says Svendsen. “Possibly we will develop a complete coronary heart in zero gravity that we will then utilise again on Earth. We’re the pioneers on this space. We are going to push it as onerous as we will and see what occurs.”