Out of this world biotechnology

May 26, 2022
What role, if any, does biotech have to play in outer space? How might an environment outside of Earth’s atmosphere impact biological research? We look at three cases studies of biotechs going into outer space.

Imagination is a driving force in technology development. We wrote about a number of biotechs that exemplify this dogma, taking concepts that once seemed like science fiction and turning them into a reality. Perhaps one of the best examples of humanity achieving what once seemed impossible is found in space travel – a popular topic in the zeitgeist driven by a few companies attempting to commercialize the process. As technological developments continue to make outer space more accessible, humankind dives deeper into Sci-Fi, allowing us to wonder – what role, if any, does biotech have to play in outer space? How might an environment outside of Earth’s atmosphere impact biological research?

In fact, we already have some hints as to what a future of space travel might mean for biotech, with a number of biotech companies already exploring what space has to offer. One example includes a partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Amgen, one of the world’s largest biotech companies. Amgen has been interested in developing therapeutics to treat osteoporosis, a bone-loss condition that often comes with old age. It has been reported that the microgravity conditions in space travel can lead to temporary bone-loss in astronauts. To address this problem, NASA and Amgen have teamed up, providing Amgen access to a controlled cohort of otherwise healthy patients to study the efficacy of their bone-loss therapeutics. 

Merck, a biopharma giant responsible for a number of vaccines and therapies, has also explored the value space can offer to biology research, in this case using microgravity as a resource to accelerate x-ray crystallography. X-ray crystallography is one of the most powerful tools that Merck and other biotech companies use when making new drugs. In this process, purified proteins are subjected to a number of conditions until researchers identify the right environment to get protein molecules to form tightly packed crystals. These protein crystals are then subjected to x-rays, in which the crystalline structure causes the x-rays to diffract in a distinct pattern. From this pattern, researchers are able to generate images of a protein's structure at a high resolution. In drug discovery, protein structures are particularly important for understanding the chemistry of how an inhibitor might bind a protein of interest. A difficult step in this process is finding the right conditions to get proteins to crystalize. Each protein is different, and will require different buffer compositions, temperatures, and incubation times to form a crystal – all of which must be experimentally tested. However, microgravity has the potential to aid crystal formation. In a low-gravity environment, the physical properties of solutions are altered in such a way that typically aids the assembly of protein molecules into crystalline structures. Enticed by the opportunity, Merck has partnered with the International Space Station to conduct some of the first protein crystallization experiments on the space shuttle, with the hope that expedited protein strutted generation will allow for more efficient drug development. 

A final example of biotechs using the physical environment of space to aid their studies comes from Eli Lilly, another large drug and biologics developer. Lyophilization, otherwise known as “freeze-drying”, is a common practice in the pharmaceutical industry as a way to ship and store drugs and reagents. However, this process can sometimes result in stratification, or a layering of the material as it dehydrates, with each layer having slightly different properties. Understanding what causes stratification and how it can be avoided may help improve quality control of pharmaceutical reagents across different stages of their use. Eli Lilly has partnered with NASA to test the effect of low gravity on lyophilization, with the hope that a better understanding of this process can lead to improved lyophilization techniques on earth. 

These examples illustrate the unexpected ways in which development in seemingly unrelated areas of science can impact biotechnology. So many biological insights were made possible by advances in physics or chemistry that allowed for new tools or approaches to biological questions, and the expansion of humankind into space appears to be no different.