Better crystals and 3D cell cultures
How microgravity helps in drug discovery and efficacy
Culturing cells under the microgravity conditions of space allows researchers to understand how the stress of microgravity affects cells – from changes in gene expression to self-assembly of 3D structures to disease models.
When we hear microgravity research, we mostly think of astronaut health and surviving on a trip to Mars. But the effects of microgravity can have a tremendous positive impact on industries here on Earth, especially for the pharma and biotech industries.
Life Science research is a very mature area within the microgravity research sector in space, as evidenced by the preponderance of the 30 years of NASA and ESA federally-funded research in the shuttle era and on the ISS. This will continue as we see pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device companies use Low Earth Orbit to develop drugs, improve delivery methods, optimize manufacturing processes, grow human tissue for more accurate drug testing, and grow tissue for more accurate disease modelling.
In this short article we’ll explain the benefits in two main areas: cell cultures and protein crystal growth:
Culturing cells under the microgravity conditions of space allows researchers to understand how the stress of microgravity affects cells – from changes in gene expression to self-assembly of 3D structures to disease models. The use of cell culture is the basis for many experiments in microgravity and even just understanding the basic differences between the gene expression of cells cultured in microgravity and those cultured in Earth’s gravity can lead to breakthroughs in understanding human health and disease.
Drug Development: Human cells make much better models of human disease and drug reactions than animal models – and the cells grow in space in a manner more similar to organs in the actual human body.
Disease Modeling: It has been demonstrated that space causes muscle loss, decreases in bone density, and cellular senescence – all of which can be likened to the effects of ageing on Earth. Cell culture in microgravity allows studies of muscle loss, decreases in bone density, and the process of cellular senescence in microgravity over weeks, months, and possibly years to compare to Earth. If cells age more quickly in microgravity than on the ground when cultured in vitro, it could lead to a longer-term understanding of ways of combating cellular ageing.
Microgravity Crystal Growth is being driven by the microgravity conditions on the International Space Station. For material things like macromolecules, the absence of gravity can benefit chemical reactions and physical processes like crystal growth by reducing turbulent flow and/or slowing down the rate of nucleation, aggregation, and crystal formation. These changes can result in the formation of physically larger and more homogeneous crystals that in turn can be visually inspected on Earth to generate higher resolution images of the physical structure of the macromolecule. Microgravity grown crystals are of great interest to large pharmaceutical and biotech companies on the ground. Better crystals help in drug development and reformulation for pharmacological interventions and beneficial biologics. Microgravity enables better maps of macromolecules and/or their therapeutic targets for preventing, treating, or curing disease due to the larger more ordered crystals produced in a microgravity environment.
These two effects alone already lead to countless experiments on the ISS by commercial companies such as Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly or Bristol-Myers Squibb. Merck has even improved its blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda through microgravity research. We can only look forward to the next breakthroughs derived from research in the unique environment of microgravity.
[The Portuguese Space Agency, Portugal Space is organising an online workshop aiming to promote the utilization of the future ESA orbital vehicle, Space Rider, amongst the Portuguese Industrial and Scientific ecosystem. Registration is free.]