Manufacturing of pharmaceutical drugs in a low orbit.
Last updated: 2019-02-06
Many experiments have been performed and larger crystal have been grown in microgravity to improve drugs made on Earth, but manufacturing drugs themselves with the intent to sell has not been performed.
Why & Solution
Microgravity changes how crystal structures develop and in the process creates better samples than can be grown on Earth. Improving the 3D structure can have a positive impact on drug delivery, manufacturing and storage. A high percentage of pharmaceutical company executives (60%) said the space economy will have a high disruption on their sector in the coming decades. In a nutshell, space affords Big Pharma unique conditions in order to improve their drugs and potentially find new treatments. A long-term goal is the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals in a low orbit. While manufacturing in a low orbit could improve drugs, it could also increase the price.
Liquid-liquid separation and chemical extraction are key processes in drug manufacturing and many other industries, including oil and gas, fragrances, food, wastewater filtration, and biotechnology. MIT spinout Zaiput Flow Technologies launched a novel continuous-flow liquid-liquid separator that makes those processes faster, easier, and more efficient. Today, nine pharmaceutical giants and a growing number of academic labs and small companies use the separator. Having proved its efficacy on Earth, the separator is now being tested as a tool for manufacturing drugs and synthesizing chemicals in outer space. 2
In space, microgravity lets materials grow without encountering walls, and it allows them to mix evenly and hold together without traditional supports. And a nearby ultrahigh vacuum helps things form without impurities. In microgravity, crystals can grow larger; in one experiment, crystals made from proteins grew to be 6 cubic millimeters, on average, compared with 0.5 cubic millimeters here on Earth. Once grown, those crystals can be analyzed to determine the proteins' 3D structures, which can help inform new strategies for drug discovery. Growing other crystals, like those used to manufacture drugs or those that can detect gamma-rays and neutrons, in space so that they're bigger and purer can make the resulting material higher-quality. 3
For drug delivery, uniformity is ideal, but it will still be some time before Merck is manufacturing drugs in space. 5
Paul Reichert, a research scientist at Merck pharmaceuticals, has been an advocate for zero gravity drug development for 25 years. Weightless drug manufacturing, he says, would enable engineers to better control chemical processes, especially when it comes to synthesizing complicated large-molecule medicines. Reichert has never left Earth, but he has designed more than a dozen experiments performed by astronauts aboard the space shuttle and the International Space Station. Still, progress is slow. “I’ve done 14 experiments in space in 24 years,” he says. “I can do 14 experiments in a day here on Earth.” Kelly hopes that more pharmaceutical experiments will be done on the Space Station, but he says an even better research site is the Moon: “It’s perfectly designed, and placed at a good distance. It’s got a sixth of the gravity of Earth, and has no atmosphere.” 6