The Next Cancer Drug Might Start in Outer Space
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Shou-Ching Jaminet, a molecular biologist and former researcher at Harvard Medical School, spent almost a year preparing an experiment for her small biotech startup, Angiex, to study the effects of weightlessness on a potential cancer drug. By June she was nervous with anticipation, readying her project for launch on an International Space Station resupply mission powered by a SpaceX Falcon 9. But before it blasted off, she wanted to lay eyes on a dolphin. In rocketry, she’d been told, it’s good luck to see one (and bad luck to see a pig) prior to liftoff. So the night before launch, she and her family headed to a waterfront restaurant near Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It was an auspicious dinner: She spotted not one dolphin but four.
At precisely 5:42 the following morning, plumes of fire lit up the sky, and the rocket took flight without a hitch. Angiex Inc. was in space. The company, which Jaminet co-founded with her husband and a former Harvard colleague, would soon be among the more than 2,400 research projects started on the ISS since it went into service in 1998. Orbiting about 250 miles above Earth, the station has provided a coveted platform for scientists to conduct experiments in the microgravity and extreme temperatures of space. Their work is monitored by a crew drawn from around the world. (Resupply missions also ferry food; Angiex’s flight included maple-smoked salmon at one astronaut’s request.)
Jaminet’s drug is intended to cut off the blood supply to tumors, thereby killing them. In space, she wants to observe how endothelial cells, which provide this blood, behave in microgravity. When a person has cancer, these cells can proliferate, promoting tumor growth. But it’s not possible to run tests on them in a nonproliferating state on Earth. Jaminet’s hypothesis is that they won’t grow in culture aboard the ISS, making them similar to the cells in a healthy person’s blood vessels. Then, if the drug doesn’t harm these dormant endothelial cells, she’ll have evidence that it won’t damage patients’ blood vessels on Earth, either, adding to the likelihood that the treatment will be safe. Bonus insight: “If the changes we are seeing in cells in culture also occur in the cells of astronauts’ bodies,” Jaminet says, “then it seems likely that tumor growth will slow down under microgravity.”
Lobbing drugs into near-zero gravity isn’t likely to produce immediate, radical results. But drug companies large and small see the practice as a valuable tool in early stage development. Merck does it, Amgen has done it, Novartis and Eli Lilly, too. Space research is appealing for a number of reasons. According to Paul Reichert, a scientist at Merck, it’s easier to maintain uniform temperatures in space, which makes the process of growing crystals more precise. Particles in solutions also tend not to settle, keeping liquid formulations more evenly distributed. And matter moves more slowly in space, giving scientists time to improve their experiments by filtering out impurities along the way.
“There’s a unique environment on the station that allows you to explore different aspects of life that you wouldn’t normally see on Earth—or you’d never see on Earth,” says Ken Savin, a former Eli Lilly scientist who’s now with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis), which manages the U.S. National Laboratory on the ISS. “It’s like Christopher Columbus has gone to the New World and people are saying, ‘Hey can we go back? What else is there? What are the new opportunities?’”
Much of this activity can be traced to Reichert, who’s been sending experiments into space since the 1990s. His early work sought to induce crystallization there. Hoping to create large crystals, he was surprised to find small, uniform ones when his experiment returned from orbit. For drug delivery, uniformity is ideal, but it will still be some time before Merck is manufacturing drugs in space.
After the main assembly of the ISS was completed in 2011, the astronauts had more time for experiments, and Casis stepped in to help facilitate the work. Reichert began studying the effects of near-weightlessness on Merck’s Keytruda, a multibillion-dollar drug that marked a major advance in the treatment of melanoma and other cancers. The aim is for those smaller, more uniform crystals to help turn the dose from an hourslong infusion into a simple shot, cutting down on the time physicians spend administering the drug and easing the burden on patients.
Much ISS pharma research is being funded by the U.S. government, which in 2017 allotted nearly $350 million of the station’s $2.8 billion budget for the purpose. President Trump has said he wants to end funding for the station by 2025 to free up money for NASA to use in other ways. Casis estimates that each trip currently costs about $7.5 million per experiment, but the price of going into space is coming down. By 2025, drug companies might be better able to bear the costs. The hope, Savin says, is that they’ll conclude, “Hey, there are good biological models that can be run in space, and it’s worth the premium.”
Three days after Jaminet’s experiment launched, the SpaceX craft docked with the ISS. She’s been in contact with the doctor-astronaut who’s handling her experiment, Serena Auñón-Chancellor, ever since. The results so far, Jaminet says, are encouraging. Back on Earth, she’s running a “ground control” experiment to compare how cells react in a normal gravity environment with how they behave in microgravity. So far, her hypothesis is panning out: The endothelial cells are growing more slowly in space.
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