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Testing time for pills in space

(22 September 2020 - University of Adelaide) Pills are being sent into space to test how they cope with the rigours of one of the harshest environments known.

The University of Adelaide is studying how exposure to microgravity and space radiation affects the stability of pharmaceutical tablet formulations. Two separate missions will send science payloads into orbit around Earth: the first will test how tablets cope with the environment inside the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory. The second mission scheduled for early 2021, will test how tablets cope outside the ISS.

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Professor Volker Hessel with pills of the type being sent into space. (courtesy: University of Adelaide)

“Our microgravity and space radiation investigations, evaluating pharmaceutical stability, are the first science payloads to be sent by the University to the ISS. The investigation will be conducted inside and outside the ISS National Laboratory in two separately owned and operated research facilities,” said the University of Adelaide’s Professor Volker Hessel, Research Director of the Centre for Sustainable Planetary and Space Resources and Professor in the School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials.

“Our partners Space Tango and Alpha Space are combining their space flight expertise to send 60 tablets to the International Space Station.”

Materials used in the tablets being tested, which are packaged in blister packs as they would be available commercially, include Ibuprofen as a pharmaceutical active ingredient and vitamin C, and excipients which are found in abundance in the lunar surface such as silica, magnesium silicate (talcum) and calcium phosphate. These materials and others could be used for new pharmaceutical formulations which may benefit the stability and bioavailability of formulations on Earth as well as those for use in space.

“The tablets which were made at the University of Adelaide, will be exposed to the microgravity and cosmic rays found in the harsh environment of space for six months before returning to Earth where we will test what effect the space environment has had on them,” says Professor Hessel.

“Radiation protection was incorporated into the design of the pills by using ingredients with heavy elements. By altering the ingredient-drug complexation – the interaction between the ingredients and the drug – we will be able to examine how these variations affect their stability.

“We only used ingredients from materials that are only available on the Moon, and in so doing we are making the first steps towards autonomous on-board pharmaceutical manufacturing.”

The first mission will be launched on Wednesday 30 September from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA and will reach the ISS on Saturday 3 October. Space Tango’s automated CubeLab hardware containing the tablets will be installed inside the ISS.

“Space Tango is pleased to coordinate with Alpha Space on a companion external study as we support the University of Adelaide’s initial mission to the ISS,” said Space Tango CEO and Co-Founder Twyman Clements. “This investigation highlights the true spirit of cooperation that is at the foundation of advancing ISS capabilities and the future of the commercial space economy.”

The second mission, scheduled for early 2021, will see tablets in Alpha Space’s Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) platform installed outside the ISS, in the vacuum of space.

“It is excellent to see collaborations with international partners, and between implementation partners, taking shape,” commented Mark Gittleman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Alpha Space. “These partnerships allow us to leverage the multiple environments on the ISS and accelerate science and discovery. We look forward to supporting the University of Adelaide in future initiatives where access to our external platform can accelerate their ongoing space efforts.”

Today, astronauts living in space 250 miles above the Earth’s surface have a supply of fully stocked and non-expired medicines courtesy of commercial resupply missions from Earth. However, future astronauts that endure a three-year trip to Mars may not have the same convenience. Without access to frequent resupply missions, pre-packed medicine for their journey will likely expire as most commercially available medicines have an average shelf life of two years, and sometimes less. While extending the shelf life of medicine might seem feasible, future astronauts will still be limited by both storage capacity and variety. The ability to produce drugs in space and on-demand could be the best solution to both of these challenges with added benefits to pharmaceutical companies here on Earth as well. This is why the University of Adelaide, Space Tango, and Alpha Space are working together to provide information towards this solution.

“Collecting data on medicine stabilisation for long-term space missions using both the internal and external platforms allows us to generate highly innovative data sets that will help direct future on-orbit and on-demand production of medicines,” said Professor Hessel.

“Upon their return, we will examine samples to see how exposure to radiation, microgravity and the harsh conditions (e.g. temperature) have affected drug stability in the excipient matrix.”

This pilot investigation provides an opportunity for the University of Adelaide to learn more about spaceflight logistics as it relates the future microgravity studies on the production of both health and technology products.

“As our first study on the ISS, we are excited to have the opportunity to work with strong and experienced partners like Space Tango and Alpha Space to support our science. We look forward to working together on future studies on these internal and external platforms to further advance our space resource initiatives across interdisciplinary medicine-process technology applications,” says Professor Hessel.