The Next Blockbuster Drug Might Be Made in Space
Microgravity could be an ideal environment for cancer drug research
Nearly a decade before the first space shuttle left Earth, NASA wanted to make drugs in space. In a 1970 internal document, the agency suggested that the microgravity environment of space could be conducive to manufacturing and testing the efficacy of different kinds of pharmaceuticals.
Gravity poses logistical challenges for scientists working in the lab. On Earth, heavier materials sink to the bottom of test tubes and often clump together. In microgravity, however, the proteins that are needed to create medicine overcome these challenges and can grow freely. When working with proteins and cells in space, the purity of experiments can increase.
When the United States’ shuttle program was first proposed, the plan was to launch as many as 50 flights a year. The cost of this ambitious idea needed to be justified. It was suggested by NASA that perhaps astronauts working on the shuttle could work on a cure for cancer. Or discover a treatment for Parkinson’s. The possibilities were endless.
In 1982, NASA partnered with McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing). McDonnell Douglas designed a machine to test a process called electrophoresis, which is a way to separate macromolecules when studying DNA and RNA. Early results suggested that the space environment would make the experiment purification processes more efficient.
Rather than having NASA astronauts test the company’s machine, McDonnell Douglas proposed to NASA that the company send one of their own employees to work on the shuttle. Surprisingly, NASA said yes. Charlie Walker, the chief test engineer who helped build the machine, was selected, and became the first civilian to go to space. He recalls the company’s confidence in their research: “We took [the results] to NASA and they said if the company is willing to invest in [sending me to space] then we are willing to partner,” he tells Medium.
With two flights to space, Walker made history, but shortly after, in 1986, the Challenger shuttle exploded, killing the crew onboard. As a result of the devastating loss, private companies, that initially wanted to send their…