To the pharmacy and beyond: Drug development goes to space

The next frontier of pharmaceuticals is outer space.

Lifesaving cancer drugs? Cool. Outer space? Cool. So, by our calculations, developing groundbreaking medicine in space would be really freaking cool.

A rocket shooting out of an orange plastic pill bottle with the Earth in the background.

BioOrbit, a space manufacturing company founded in 2023 and funded by the European Space Agency, agrees — that’s why it’s trying to commercialize drug production in space, per Wired.

Why, you might ask, is this even a thing?

Let’s back up a little:

  • Immunotherapy, which mimics the body’s immune system to attack harmful cells, is one of the most effective new cancer treatments — but it’s usually administered intravenously, which means patients have to sit for time-consuming infusions.
  • To speed up the process, patients could, in theory, self-inject the drugs at home. But any solution concentrated enough for an at-home injection to work would be too thick. Unless you could crystallize the proteins — but that’s essentially impossible on Earth.

Without Earth’s gravitational pull getting in the way, proteins could crystallize uniformly and a superconcentrated solution would be a game changer.

That’s why BioOrbit will trial the process on the International Space Station in 2025, followed by a second space flight, hopefully alongside a pharmaceutical partner.

Out of this world

BioOrbit isn’t the first to dabble with drugs in space: Big Pharma companies like Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb have long been working on protein crystallization experiments.

But, for startups and Big Pharma companies alike, there are challenges. Namely, outer space has a high barrier to entry, with long wait times to board a rocket, high expenses, and regulations.

If it can overcome the obstacles, BioOrbit could one day have a permanent outpost in space for drug research and manufacturing.

I mean, how hard could it be — it’s not rocket science. Wait…

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