In a paper on the subject prepared for the American Astronautical Society's ISS Research and Development Conference in Denver this week, Uhran notes that biotech has generated three times the patents as the next-ranked field, analytical instrumentation, and he suggests that the relative simplicity of biological experiments in space may have contributed to the large number.
“The devices and apparatus needed to conduct basic biological studies at the molecular, cellular and microbiotic levels are often less complex and costly than those required for processing of toxic inorganic elements and compounds at high temperatures and pressures,” he writes.
While it remains to be seen how much the pharmaceutical industry will use the space station facilities, the value of microgravity research is well understood in the industry. Amgen, a biotechnology company based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has partnered with Belgian pharmaceutical giant UCB to develop a sclerostin antibody that counteracts bone loss in post-menopausal osteoporosis and promotes bone healing in fractures.
As part of that work, the company flew a preclinical trial of the antibody on STS-135, the last space shuttle mission, to gauge its effects in mice subjected to microgravity. Bone loss is a well-understood effect of microgravity on mammals, including humans, and the work meshed nicely with NASA's need to protect its astronauts on long-duration space missions and the pharmaceutical industry's search for profitable drugs.
“The sclerostin pathway is regulated by mechanical load, and so if you really want to find out what happens at one extreme level of physiology, like completely unloading the skeleton, there's just no way to do it here on the planet,” says Chris Paszty, scientific executive director at Amgen. “So there are unique things that are only achievable in space.”
Final results of the space tests will be reported in October at the annual meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, and Paszty does not want to preview the results. But he describes the quality of data received during the short-duration shuttle mission as “fantastic,” and says right now there is no need to repeat the test on the space station.
It will be up to the ISS marketers at Casis to convince biotech experts like Paszty and his research counterparts in other fields that there is a need to use the station. And it remains to be seen at this point if they will be able to alert researchers in other fields to the capabilities available to them in orbit.