Israeli experiments in space: The future is here!

SpacePharma has developed a miniaturized, unmanned, remotely controlled lab on a chip - meaning you can sit in your office in Tel Aviv and operate it.

 A technician works in a laboratory at SpacePharma’s research and development site in Herzliya. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A technician works in a laboratory at SpacePharma’s research and development site in Herzliya.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Imagine a future where you could put an experiment on a micro-chip and send it into space where the conditions in space make the experiment more successful than it would be on earth. This is actually happening today – most recently last month – on the Axiom-1 Space mission which included Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe.

During that mission, Stibbe spent more than two weeks at the International Space Station and took several Israeli experiments with him conducted in microgravity. He got some extra time in space after a series of delays due to bad weather conditions for an ocean splashdown. Axiom-1, which launched on April 8, was originally scheduled to come back on April 20, but his trip was extended until April 25. 

Stibbe, a former Israeli fighter pilot, paid his own way on the Space-X flight. He was one of four astronauts on the flight and took 35 experiments for companies and research institutions with him, on the privately-funded Rakia Mission to the International Space Station, ranging from health and agriculture to optics and energy.

Why is space good for research? 

“In space there is no convection, no shear force and no buoyancy,” SpacePharma CEO Yossi Yamin told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from Orlando where he supervised the mission. “Space provides a unique environment that is helpful to pharmaceutical research including different shapes of molecules.”

SpacePharma has developed a minitiarized, unmanned, remotely controlled lab on a chip. That means you can sit in your office in Tel Aviv and operate the experiment. Yamin says he got the idea for doing experiments in space when he was the Commander of the Israeli Satellite Unit.

 Eytan Stibbe with SpacePharma’s mini-lab. (credit: COURTESY OF SPACEPHARMA) Eytan Stibbe with SpacePharma’s mini-lab. (credit: COURTESY OF SPACEPHARMA)

“So why (use the technology) just for security and defense – why not for all life sciences?” he asked. “This technology is valid for the last 30 years, but you had to be a huge state power with huge expensive space agencies. Today, we can do it on a business-card size.”

I mention to Danny Bavli, the director of organ on chip and single cell genomics that doing experiments in space is cool.

“Yes, it is cool,” Bavli, who is currently at Harvard agrees. “But, that’s not why we’re doing it. We are in the business of science and new medicine and there is a reason why people and companies spend so much money going into space.”

What is Epigentics and why is it important?

Gravity affects everything on earth, says Bavli, and the lack of gravity can help develop new pharmaceuticals.

“When you go to space you become much older,” Bavli said. “Many astronauts come back to earth with a loss of muscle and bone density and sometimes even cognitive conditions.”

Epigentics, the science of how genes turn on and off, is different in space, Bavli says. It is a field that has only been developed in the past 30 years. It is not ethical to send people into space just to investigate the effect that aging will have on them. So putting liver cells, for example, on a chip, and sending them into space helps scientists come up with new drugs that could help diseases related to aging including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

MOLECULES ALSO crystallize differently in space. One drug that has been in the news recently as a treatment for advanced COVID is monoclonal antibodies. SpacePharm says these can be crystallized in space to yield large, pure, uniform high quality crystals that are much more uniform than if crystallized on earth. I will also help scientists investigate drug interactions to make sure they are safe. They believe that the investigations being done in space will lead to improved drug stability and storage.

Another area of promising research is stem cells. SpacePharma says that under microgravity conditions, various types of stem cells, which can be used to grow into any organ in the body. Under microgravity stem cells have shown an ability to renew themselves more efficiently than on earth. Many doctors believe that stem cells will be used more in the future of medicine as medicine is designed individually for each person.

Space - the cheaper frontier 

SpacePharma has already participated in seven missions to space. One of the biggest challenges, according to Yamin, is that while the experiment is in the cargo bay of the spacecraft before the launch there is no electricity. SpacePharma defined and developed a NASA-compliant battery that can enable the organ on a chip to survive for seven days. Yamin says that developing drugs in space will also be much cheaper than developing drugs on earth because of the organ on a chip.

The organ on a chip mimics the functioning of an actual organ but on a micro level. It is constructed to help the cells proliferate quickly. Bavli says that will ring down the price of developing new drugs.

“Let’s say there was a pharma company and they spent $200 million to develop a drug and at stage one you found it was toxic,” he said. “But, what if you could send it to space and get a different polymer. Once the crystal was created it could be replicated on earth instead of starting over with a completely new drug.”

SpacePharma is a for-profit venture, charging companies a fee for sending their experiments into space. Sarah Numan is a researcher with Amorphical, a biotech company that develops and manufactures natural-based medicines and dietary supplements that aims to improve calcium absorption and regulate the body’s acidity level.

The drugs can be used for osteoporosis and other bone deficiencies. Numan spent much of her career as a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science. She says that astronauts often suffer from osteoporosis and lose muscle mass.

The company sent an experiment on the recent mission.

“We already have primary results, and the cells grow very nicely as opposed to the control group,” she said.

She said she envisions as a medicine that can help astronauts in the future. They could take the supplement with them and it may be able to help prevent some of the negative effects that space has on the human body. It will also be useful for osteoporosis on earth, she said.

She says SpacePharma has been easy to work with and have enabled her to monitor the experiment in real time. She says that she believes that more drugs will be developed in space.

“I am not young – I am 75 years old,” she said with a laugh, noting that she was a year older than Israel. “I see this experiment in space as a finale for my career.” 