At a Glance
- A session at the annual BIO International Convention, held in Boston this week, is focused on leveraging the ISS for innovative life sciences research.
- Panelists include ISS National Lab researchers from Merck & Co., crystallizing proteins in microgravity to improve drug delivery, and from 490 BioTech, testing a new bioreporter technology for improved evaluation of drug effectiveness and safety.
- Panelists also include implementation partner Techshot, which operates multiple facilities onboard the ISS National Lab, and former NASA Astronaut Colonel Terry Virts, Jr.
The annual BIO International Convention, hosted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, brings together leaders from biotechnology companies and organizations from all over the U.S. and around the world to foster the growth of the global biotech industry. The 2018 BIO International Convention is being held in Boston this week, with an attendance of more than 16,000 people from 74 countries.
This year’s convention includes a session focused on leveraging the International Space Station for innovative life sciences research. Panelists for the session include ISS National Lab investigators Paul Reichert, associate principal scientist at Merck & Co., and Dan Close, chief science officer at 490 BioTech, as well as Carlos Chang, senior scientist at in-orbit commercial facilities operator Techshot, and former NASA Astronaut Colonel Terry Virts, Jr.
Providing Commercial In-Orbit Facilities and Services
Techshot is one of several in-orbit commercial facilities operators supporting increasing demand for space-based research by providing new platforms that enable innovative research on the ISS National Lab. Techshot’s most recent facility, which launched to the ISS on SpaceX CRS-14 in April, is the Multi-use Variable-gravity Platform (MVP). The MVP is a controlled-environment facility that provides artificial gravity from 0.1 g to 2 g in the free-fall environment of low Earth orbit. The MVP enables a wide variety of life sciences research to understand biological processes affecting human health using cultured cells and tissue chips or model organisms including fruit flies, flatworms, or fish.
The MVP joins the many other Techshot facilities and tools onboard the ISS, including the Bone Densitometer (an enhanced form of X-ray technology enabling in-orbit measurements of rodent bones, muscles, and other tissues), the Analytical Containment Transfer Tool (a tool for in-orbit fluid transfer from experimental hardware to analysis tools), and the ADvanced Space Experiment Processor (a multi-purpose biotechnology platform with three independent thermal zones). Techshot is also working on several new facilities, including the first space-based 3D BioFabrication Facility, which seeks to bioprint human tissues and organs in space for use back on Earth—an important development for regenerative medicine.
Crystallizing Proteins in Microgravity to Improve Drug Delivery
Merck is using the ISS National Lab to grow crystalline suspensions consisting of millions of tiny uniform crystals, with the goal to improve the formulation and delivery of the company’s cancer-fighting immunotherapy drug, Keytruda®. Many cancer drugs, such as Keytruda®, are large biological molecules in dilute solutions that must be given through a slow intravenous infusion. However, if the drugs could be formulated as concentrated crystalline suspensions, it may be possible to deliver them as a quick injection under the skin, significantly benefitting patients’ comfort and recovery. Results from Merck’s investigation, which launched on SpaceX CRS-10 in February 2017, could also lead to improvements in the drug purification process and in drug storage.
The ISS is an optimal platform for many crystallization experiments because microgravity enables crystal growth that is more ordered. This is due to the minimization of gravity-driven forces such as convection and sedimentation that, through mixing, result in the creation of gradients that yield less-ordered crystals. By crystallizing therapeutic monoclonal antibodies such as Keytruda® on the space station, Merck researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the variables affecting crystal growth that could be applied to drug development and manufacturing back on the ground.
Reducing the Failure Rate of Drug Discovery Efforts
490 BioTech is using the ISS National Lab to test a new technology for assessing cellular function that enables improved evaluation of drug effectiveness and safety. The cost of bringing a drug through the development process to market is inconceivably expensive—the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development estimates the cost to be around $2.6 billion—and more than half of all new drug candidates fail upon reaching the preclinical or clinical trial testing phase. Economic models suggest a 10% improvement in failure prediction rates for a candidate drug prior to clinical trials could lead to $100 million savings in development costs.
490 BioTech’s investigation, which launched on SpaceX CRS-14, is focused on use of their autobioluminescent technology to test the response of human cells to their environment and to therapeutic drugs, in this case by examining the metabolism of anti-cancer compounds. This technology causes cells to produce light based on the health of the cells—healthy cells glow brightly and unwell cells grow dim. The ISS is an ideal platform to test drug efficacy because microgravity promotes superior 3D cell culture growth, which enables drug evaluations that may better mimic the cellular response of human tissues. Microgravity research using 490 BioTech’s autobioluminescent technology may significantly reduce the failure rate of future drug discovery efforts by improving this innovative new technology to track the status of human cell lines continuously and autonomously by producing a light signal related to health.