The Final Frontier for Regenerative Medicine
What will drug development look like aboard a new commercial space station?
Stephanie Sutton | | Opinion
Admit it: space stations are cool. Regenerative medicine is cool. Combine the two, and the coolness goes into overdrive.
The RegenMed Development Organization (ReMDO), the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM), and Axiom Space have established a partnership to “advance in-space regenerative medicine biomanufacturing.”
It’s very early days – so early that the space station where the research will take place hasn’t been completed yet – but it’s still an intriguing project. And Axiom Space has demonstrated its clear commitment.
Axiom is a private spaceflight company with ambitions to operate the world’s first commercial space station, which should initially be attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Axiom’s first private mission – “Axiom Mission 1” – was undertaken earlier in April and was the first private trip to the ISS. The four astronauts that were part of the mission were supposed to land back on Earth on April 20 after an eight-day stay on ISS, but this has been delayed due to bad weather at the splashdown site in Florida. At the time of writing, a new departure date was still being set.
The proposed station is called Axiom Hub One and is being designed to include crew quarters, as well as research and manufacturing capabilities. Construction is in progress and launch is planned for 2024.
Why conduct research in space? Axiom points to the benefits of researching aging in space by claiming, “Spaceflight offers aging researchers a distinct research model in which to test new ideas that may uncover meaningful discoveries.” The company explains that spaceflight can accelerate aging, as many returning astronauts experience symptoms similar to those seen in the elderly, such as decreased cone density, reduced cardiovascular capacity, and immune dysfunction – to name just a few. You can read more from Axiom about why space is so well suited to researching aging here.
In a statement, Axiom adds that regenerative medicine has been identified as an important “focus area” for spaceflight initiatives.
ReMDO and WFIRM have not yet given details about the exact work they are planning, and since it is such a new “frontier” it will likely take time before we really understand the biomedical benefits that can come from research medicines in space. However, one area that WFIRM is interested in is developing treatments for conditions that affect humans who have been exposed to space travel.
If astronauts are ever to be sent for long-term missions – for example, trips to Mars – they will likely need medicines. Moreover, space is a grueling environment that can cause numerous health issues in astronauts. Back in 2020, I spoke with Phil Williams from the University of Nottingham about his work on an “astropharmacy.” He had a lot to tell me about spaceflight, the human body, and medicines. For example: “This environment causes redistribution of fluids in the body, in particular the blood, which is no longer pulled towards the feet and away from the head. The body compensates for this unnatural pooling in the upper half of the body by then reducing the volume of the blood. These changes in fluid distribution and blood volume all cause immediate changes to pharmacokinetics/pharmacodynamics (PK/PD). Studies on the SpaceLab (the laboratory that flew in the bay of the Space Shuttle), for example, have shown that the rate of absorption (measured in saliva) of paracetamol and scopolamine/dexedrine from tablets were double after one day of space flight, and almost halved after two. Longer term changes caused by microgravity include muscle atrophy, insulin receptor desensitization (astronauts can be clinically diabetic after 30 days of spaceflight), retinopathy, and decalcification of bone (and the consequent deposition of calcium elsewhere, often as kidney stones).”
If you want to know more, read the article from Williams.
The Medicine Maker has also published other articles about medicine making in space, including on-demand medicines and making a bioreactor that can operate in microgravity. Our coverage is available here.
And if you have something to tell me about making medicine in space, I’d love to hear from you: [email protected].
Credit: Fearedlion123 / Wikimedia Commons