April 7, 2022

Why Biotech Companies Should Consider Space as the Next Frontier for Drug Discovery

Microgravity in low-Earth orbit is the perfect environment for innovation

Space exploration has been making headlines for the past few years for myriad reasons: billionaires embarking on suborbital voyages, tech companies are racing to launch new satellites, and NASA’s announcement in 2019 that it would open the International Space Station to commercial businesses.

While NASA, universities, and astronauts have been conducting lab research and experiments abord the ISS for years, biotech companies are being invited to also consider conducting research in microgravity—the weightlessness that happens in a free-falling space craft—as some experts say it’s especially beneficial for the discovery of new drugs and therapies.

“There are unlimited possibilities in space—from optical fibers and alloys, to 3D printing and 3D bioprinting, and crystallization and thin films, and many more discoveries.”

A recent webinar hosted by Biocom California and its Contract Research Organization (CRO) Committee, “Access to Microgravity for Drug Discovery,” explored how biotech companies can advance their research by going into low-Earth orbit, and the benefits it yields. Attendees had the pleasure of hearing directly from Anjali Gupta, Ph.D., Life Science Business Development Lead at Axiom Space; Nicole L. Wagner, Ph.D., president and CEO of LamdaVision; and Arun Sharma, Ph.D., Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and Smidt Heart Institute, about their experience with drug discovery in space.

“Space is open for business,” Gupta said. She notes several pharmaceutical companies that have conducted research in space, such as Amgen, Eli Lily, and Merck, and said that what happens to astronauts’ bodies in a weightless environment—such as cardiovascular and muscular atrophy, and bone loss—mimics some common diseases we deal with on Earth. This makes microgravity a unique environment to test and develop pharmaceutical ingredients for these conditions. Gupta said Axiom Space is currently building a module that will attach to the ISS, and the company aims to launch the world’s first commercial space station in 2028. “There are unlimited possibilities in space—from optical fibers and alloys, to 3D printing and 3D bioprinting, and crystallization and thin films, and many more discoveries,” she said. “Building for spaceflight really pushes the boundaries of innovation.”

Wagner, whose firm develops protein-based artificial retinas to treat degenerative eye diseases that can lead to blindness, shared her experience in how she received funding to produce the retinas on the ISS, and the steps she took to open the initial lines of communication with NASA. Sharma, who is the head of a new laboratory at Cedars-Sinai, also went into depth about his research on the effects of stem cell growth in microgravity and how they might be able to be mass-produced in this environment. Sharma also led a project that sent human-derived heart cells to the ISS to study how microgravity affects the cardiovascular system.

It was a boundary-pushing discussion that explored how companies can take their research to the next level to further advance health care and potentially develop life-saving therapies.

View the archived recording from the virtual event below.