SpaceX goes medical

9 mins. to read
SpaceX goes medical

Space exploration and biotech team up in zero gravity

I recently argued that SpaceX is much more than a billionaire’s ego trip – even if its revenue model is sometimes obscured by grandiose schemes like taking rich tourists to the moon. Some news has recently emerged on the NASA website which confirms my view that space is becoming a serious business – and which promises an exciting crossover between space travel and medical research.

The SpaceX capsule Dragon safely returned to Earth from its latest mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, 19 March – and it came back with the results of some important medical experiments. A number of ongoing initiatives, including the Microgravity Expanded Stem Cells project and the Tissue Regeneration-Bone Defect study, are taking advantage of zero gravity conditions in space to conduct experiments in the realm of life science.

Test samples from those studies were part of Dragon’s cargo. A number of biopharma companies and medical institutions, including pharma giant Merck (NYSE:MRK) and the Mayo Clinic (a major US medical research institute based in Wisconsin), have been using micro gravity to research drug development.

The Microgravity Extended Stem Cells Project

This stem cells project seeks to understand how cells propagate in zero and micro gravity as compared to Earth’s gravity, and whether this has an effect on the genetic coding of cells produced.

Consider that, at present, scientists simply do not know whether a baby could be conceived in zero or micro gravity and whether an embryo would develop normally in space – or on Mars where the gravitational pull is only 38 percent of that of the Earth. (So if you weigh a burly 100 kilos on Earth you will only weigh a svelte 38 kilos on Mars). Unless babies can be born on Mars there will be no true Martians – and all personnel in a future space colony will have to be replaced over time by new immigrants from Earth.

According to NASA’s website[i], human stem cells must be expanded in order to be used in various medical therapies. Scientists currently have no efficient way to do this, but the idea is that stem cell expansion may accelerate in micro gravity. The Microgravity Expanded Stem Cells programme cultivates human stem cells aboard the ISS for use in clinical trials to evaluate their use in treating diseases, strokes and other conditions.

The Tissue Regeneration-Bone Defect Study

The Tissue Regeneration-Bone Defect programme (also more snappily known as Rodent Research-4) carries out systems biology studies to understand the physiological events associated with wound healing mechanisms under differing gravitational forces. It is hoping to identify potential signatures to identify if wounds heal faster or slower in zero gravity. The results of this programme will provide a new understanding of biological healing mechanisms and the efficacy of drugs used for osteoporosis in zero gravity. The Dragon spacecraft was carrying tissue from 40 mice to determine how bone fractures heal in zero gravity.

Also, we know that astronauts tend to lose bone density on long missions in zero gravity and ways must be found to reverse this. By the time an astronaut returns from a round-trip to Mars he or she may risk snapping bones as they step out of the spacecraft on Earth – unless a remedy is found.

International Space Station Medical Monitoring

NASA and its partners subject astronauts to rigorous and systematic clinical evaluations before, during and after their missions in space. These evaluations include physical examination by the crew surgeon, neurological assessments, vision, hearing and dental assessments, electrocardiograms, bone densitometry, ultrasound imaging, clinical laboratory tests (blood and urine) and body mass measurement.

In particular, biometric data is collected before and after flight to determine whether or not aberrations in chromosomes may have occurred following space flight due to radiation exposure.

Any return journey beyond Mars to the outer solar system will take decades rather than years and astronauts who live long and stay fit-for-life will be at a premium.

Astronauts also undergo physical fitness tests and nutritional assessments. Inflight dietary intake is monitored and body mass measurements and blood chemistry data are obtained on a continuous basis.

There is therefore a demand for wearable devices which track personal health information exemplified by Fitbit’s (NYSE:FIT) Fitness Wrist Band and Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iWatch Strap.

Regular readers will know that I have been arguing in favour of the roll-out of a digital NHS by means of which citizens would collect medical data on smartphones with specialist apps and upload them continuously to an ever wakeful mobile doctor. The NASA health monitoring programme may teach us how to facilitate this ideal most efficiently.

Astronauts need medicines too

Exposure to high levels of cosmic radiation during long space journeys could make an astronaut’s chances of developing cancer one hundred percent certain without some kind of prophylactic. The solution could be a new family of anti-ageing drugs which promote effective cell DNA repair.

Jim Mellon is currently working on a book call Juvenescence which is about how new medical technologies coming on stream in the next decades will extend human longevity – perhaps significantly. This is of particular interest to those who think about space travel: any return journey beyond Mars to the outer solar system will take decades rather than years and astronauts who live long and stay fit-for-life will be at a premium.

Research is now underway on the application of a compound called nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN, chemical formula C11H15N2O8P) which has been found to have a dramatic rejuvenating effect on mice. The molecule boosts levels of a metabolite called NAD+, a chemical present in every cell of the human body, which helps regulate protein interactions controlling DNA repair. NAD+ cannot be taken orally like other vitamins because it does not survive the digestive system long enough to enter cells.

One view of the “natural” ageing process is that DNA becomes damaged inside cells over time. As they replicate, damaged cells result in ageing tissue and also cancer. Levels of NAD+ naturally decline with age. The question is whether that decline can be halted and reversed. Hence clinical trials of MNM have been undertaken in Japan[ii] and the USA[iii].

A cursory Google search informs me that natural foods which contain NMN include cucumber, broccoli, cabbage and avocado. Additionally, NMN supplements are already available in health food shops and, of course, on Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN). I note that Matt Damon, who played the hero of The Martian, cultivated brassicas on Mars – but he would no doubt have already been dosed up with high levels of NMN.

It’s in the blood

Dracula would approve. Scientists have confirmed that elderly folk who were given transfusions of blood from young people showed improved cognition, memory and physical activity. But even if the science behind this is sound, this is never going to become a popular therapy: there is likely to be a shortage of willing young donors! The solution could lie in the discovery of a protein that keeps blood cells youthful.

Human red (erythrocytes) and white (lymphocytes) blood cells are produced by stem cells that themselves come from “mother” blood stem cells located in our bone marrow. As we age, however, the number of “mother” stem cells in our bone marrow declines. And as they diminish so do the number of red and white blood cells. This can cause anaemia and a weakened immune system, and in extreme cases fatal age-related blood disorders such as myelodysplasia.

Professor Hartmut Geiger of the University of Ulm[iv] has established that older mice have much lower levels of a protein called osteopontin in their blood. His team mixed older mice stem cells with osteopontin and added an activating protein. The result was that older stem cells began to produce white blood cells just as young stem cells do. This opens up the possibility of making old blood young again.

Until now most efforts to rejuvenate blood have focussed on the plasma, the liquid component. This is the first approach that involves boosting stem cell production; and it could be of especial interest to astronauts.

Mushrooms in space…

Last summer researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) announced that they will send four strains of fungi to the ISS in an effort to develop new medicines. The experiment is to be conducted in collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory[v]. The SpaceX mushroom launch is scheduled for this month.

Fungi produce molecules known as secondary metabolites, which drug companies use to develop pharmaceuticals. However, USC scientists reckon that these fungi produce only a fraction of all the potential molecules of which they are capable on Earth. They believe the stressful environment of the ISS (radiation waves plus zero gravity) will stimulate the fungi to produce quite new secondary metabolites – and thus new potential drugs.

What did space travel ever do for us?

It is a cliché that Teflon coatings were pioneered by NASA to enable spacecraft to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere without burning up. The unintended consequence of that innovation was that humanity can now fry eggs without fear that they will stick to the pan. And if the Apollo missions reached the Moon in the 1960s without an integrated circuit on board, the US space programme hugely stimulated the IT sector in the 1980s and thereafter.

Until now, advances in medical science attributed to space travel have been overlooked. That is about to change.

Until now however, advances in medical science attributed to space travel have been overlooked. That is about to change. All the big players in pharma will now need their own space programmes. This is great news for SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and the rest. Moreover, the medical advances achieved will make the possibility of that colony on Mars more feasible. That’s called symbiosis – or progress to you and me.

Looking ahead

I’m sceptical that humans will ever venture much beyond this solar system – we are just too biologically clunky. Though human-originated robots surely will reach the stars – eventually. In the meantime, before the robots dispense with us, big pharma will open massive new laboratories in space.

Coming back to the present, I note that Elon Musk’s other brainchild, Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), has now overtaken Ford (NYSE:F) and General Motors (GM:NYSE) to become the largest US automotive manufacturer by market capitalisation[vi]. (It is now worth nearly US$53 billion. I look at Tesla and electric cars in my Opportunities in Focus column in the April edition of the MI magazine.) And when its time comes for floatation, which cannot be too far off, SpaceX will make Tesla look diminutive.

For a full menu of academic articles on how space travel may affect human astronauts’ health, check out Space Travel News.

[i] See:

[ii] See:

[iii][iii] See:

[iv] See New Scientist, 25 March 2017, page 8, Old blood made young again by Jessica Hamzelou. Based on the academic paper by University of Ulm researchers available at:

[v] See:

[vi] See:

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