NASA wants to make drugs in space


‘Getting spaced’ could soon take on a literal meaning, as NASA announced intentions to manufacture drugs in space. The veteran space organisation are working to send fungi to the International Space Station (ISS) in April.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in collaboration with a team of researchers from the University of Southern California, hope to see if this fungal species can be used to develop medicine in space.

But be assured, these fungi are far from ‘magic’ mushrooms. Fungi produce molecules known as secondary metabolites. These are organic substances that are not required for the growth, reproduction, or development of an organism. Essentially, they are waste – but useful waste.

Secondary metabolites are used in the pharmaceutical industry to create medicine. Some of the world’s most widely used drugs are produced from these substances. Penicillin, the antibiotic, is the most famous example of this.

Scientists believe that in order for secondary metabolites to emerge, the organism must be under ‘stressful conditions’. Space, they believe, would be an ideal environment.

The fungal organism they have chosen seems perfect for the mission. Aspergillus nidulans has already been known to produce useful molecules that have been used in osteoporosis drugs.

Scientists predict that the fungus will be able to create 40 different drugs when in zero gravity. The osteoporosis implications of A. nidulans are useful for NASA. Astronauts lose bone mass when spending prolonged periods in space, so the fungus could be crucial in combating this.

“Drugs have an expiration date. NASA’s human mission to Mars is expected to last anywhere from one to three years. Not all drugs are going to be stable in that time period, so the ability to make drugs in space will enable us to go further away from Earth and will also benefit future space explorations,” said Professor Wang of the University of Southern California.

While travelling in a SpaceX craft up to the ISS, the fungi will be stored at 4 degrees Celsius. Upon arrival at the ISS, it will be stored at 37 degrees Celsius for seven days. This experiment will allow A. nidulans to create the coveted molecules that it cannot create on Earth.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and their collaborators at the University of Southern California will watch the progress of the experiment intensely, as it may determine the way space travel, and particularly its health implications, are dealt with in future.


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