Life sciences in space research: what do you know about miniature space labs?

Planet Earth at Night,focused Asia and Australia with star field backgrounds. Based on imagery from NASA.
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Paul Kamoun, CMO of SpacePharma, explains the benefits of life sciences in space research and the opportunities this presents to health companies

In early December 2019, Health Europa Quarterly had the opportunity to interview Paul Kamoun at the EIT Health Summit, hosted in Paris, France. At the summit, Kamoun explored the concept of how space and its associated technologies present the incredible opportunity of accelerating innovation for biomedical research and health companies.

With over 40 years of experience in the space field, Kamoun gave an insight into the new innovation revolution: life sciences and health in space research.

A brief insight into SpacePharma

“I have been lucky enough to witness several technological revolutions ranging from space, astronomy, telecommunications, to earth observation, transport with GPS and more,” explains Kamoun. “Now, the new revolution is real life sciences in space. I believe this is going to change the paradigm of research in life sciences, from pharmaceutical to cosmetics to biotechnologies — a lot of discoveries are in the pipeline.”

Kamoun is the CMO of SpacePharma, the innovative company with a mission to leverage miniaturised microgravity lab technology in order to enable unprecedented possibilities to develop new drugs in space. With his vast experience concerning space knowledge, expert knowhow regarding laboratories, vehicles, how to use them and how to develop them for a space mission, Kamoun is responsible for all the global developments of SpacePharma.

“The main activity of SpacePharma is to develop miniaturised laboratories remotely controlled from the Earth,” he says, “and this can actually be done from your smartphone! We have designed technology with the ability to control what is happening in a lab in space to develop new drugs, create new polymorphs of existing drugs, and to accelerate the development of drugs, from Earth.

“In particular, we are now able to develop preclinical analysis studies with lab-on-a-chip and organ-on-a-chip in space, and there are two fundamental things that are great about it.

Number one is that in space, everything is accelerated – we gain time from a preclinical perspective. Number two, we avoid using animals. We have seen in the past when testing on animals the results were not always conclusive. Sometimes testing works on animals but then this does not necessarily translate to working on humans. With an organ-on-a-chip, for example, you are able to change the picture and get a better outcome using real human tissue.”

If you don’t test on animals, how do you test the medicines and the drugs effectively?

Kamoun explains how drug development is always in two stages: preclinical and the clinical phases. “While a clinical test on humans are impossible to avoid, however, in the preclinical phase, the fact that we are now able to conduct lab-on-a-chip or organ-on-a-chip means using human tissue we have a better chance of gaining more accurate results.

“The lab-on-a-chip or organ-on-a-chip is a programme SpacePharma is developing together with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA; this programme is able to simulate and model all of the functions of a human organ or tissue in a more accurate way than what can be gained with animals.

“With animals, the organs might look like the organ of a human but the final translation will not be entirely accurate, however when reproducing an organ-on-a-chip, we essentially gain the benefit of replicating the same organ functions of a human. It’s really bringing a lot of hope for us to be able to achieve drug developments much faster.”

Over the past 40 years, what do you think has most changed in the domain of space?

“It has been about 30 years now since we have been trying to do life science experiments in space on astronauts. What has changed dramatically in the last two years is, number one, the cost of research in space has gone down tremendously, thanks to people like Elon Musk with SpaceX and also projects in the US and across the world. Secondly, our lab – which is miniaturised – means the weight of machinery that is sent up into orbit is far less than the weight of typical space machinery; and as a result, it is much cheaper.”

The less a piece of machinery weighs the cheaper it is to send to space; and as Kamoun explains, this is a big advancement in today’s world, especially when developing these laboratories for commercial use. “Our lab is fully remotely controlled from Earth. With your smartphone, you can see everything which is happening in the lab. You can see the crystals forming, the bacteria living or being killed, all with your smartphone – we do not need astronauts anymore. This is an incredibly innovative breakthrough, and is changing the whole picture.”

Miniature space labs and the life cycle of the robotics

Asking about the miniature space labs, we wondered: are all the labs completely robotic? “Absolutely,” Kamoun says. “They are fully robotic and autonomous. When we go to the space station, the only instance an astronaut is required is to plug the machinery in to give power to the station.”

“We are also developing the first factory in orbit for drugs,” he adds. “This is the next step, and we plan to use the energies in the space station which still have a lifetime of another few years, but it is very expensive to operate. People are more and more considering the use of autonomous shuttles.

“A lot of companies are now preparing smaller versions, including the European Space Agency who actually voted in a budget in late November 2019 to develop the ‘space rider’ vehicle – this is a small space shuttle with no astronauts, which simplifies logistics considerably. We are now ready to come on the maiden flight in 2022 to test in orbit, do drug production and then bring it back to Earth for the first time commercially.”

What is the life cycle of the way in which the labs function?

Kamoun explains: “Firstly, SpacePharma has to effectively prepare the lab like you would prepare any experiment. Because we do life science, we have to be the last item to come into the rocket for the launch – that is what we call ‘late access’.

“On the way back, we have to have early unloading and delivery from the return vehicle. Typically, the miniature lab is with the cargo capsule which is sent to the astronauts to bring them food and supplements. Once unloaded from the cargo and safely at the space station, it will remain there in space for three months.”

Kamoun further explains how the whole management of the space station is conducted by the control in NASA and other space agencies involved. “For us, however, we are fully remote and are fully autonomous. Once we put the machinery in the launcher, the miniature lab does its job, everything is programmable, and everything is programmed, (such as the experiments). If there is something that goes wrong, we have no way to intervene, but the machinery has been designed so no intervention is necessary. It goes up, it goes down and then we see what we’ve got.”

The objective for SpacePharma is to deliver the lab machinery much faster into space and receive the machinery back to earth much faster for drug production, he adds: “This is the goal of our future factory.”

That is essentially the cycle of launching miniature laboratories into space:

  • Development of the lab;
  • Late loading;
  • Late access to the launcher;
  • Launch;
  • Bring the miniature lab back into the station or vehicle;
  • Remain in space for a decided time;
  • Return to earth, and ultimately
  • Provide early delivery to the customers.

So what are the benefits of performing these experiments in space?

“There are many different benefits. First, what you have to understand is that space is a different world. In space, physical, chemical, biological reactions behave differently than others because of the absence of gravity is changing the whole picture: when you change the environment, you might change the result of any experiment you are doing and you discover new phenomena masked by the gravity forces.

“In particular, when you grow crystals on Earth it grows in 2D. When in space, it grows in 3D. It grows much bigger; protein crystals that are the basis for biological drugs and drug-receptor interactions, you can get much larger, purer and uniform crystals and polymorphs with improved physicochemical properties which is essential for the development of drugs. Also, sometimes it has different toxicity, different efficacy because of the polymorph you develop in space. We can study all this much faster in space; and it is critical to develop new vaccines, and innovative therapeutic agents.

“Also, we are now developing artificial skin in space since it grows faster in space. Most processes go faster because of the freedom of reactions to overcome the effects of gravity. Gravity has a tremendous impact, which people did not realise so much in the past.

“It is microscopic. This is playing an important role, even at such a minuscule level. Everything is changed when you go to space, and a new world is opening. That is why life sciences in space research presents a change of paradigm. It is not an evolution; it is a revolution which is happening now because of the disruptive microgravity environment.”

What are the drawbacks or the limitations of sending miniature laboratories into space?

“The main limitation is the cost of the launch, and even the cost of launch is decreasing and the availability of launches is increasing. There are many private companies now which are on the market to launch small satellites and small laboratories; this is very good for us. In a few years, it will cost only a few thousand dollars to launch one kilo.

What does the future hold for SpacePharma?

“The key element that we have to retain is that we are introducing a change of paradigm in drug discovery and drug production, therapy development, biotechnology, stem cell proliferation differentiation, and so on – this is all a new paradigm as it is a new disruptive environment.

“We are going into a new world; space is so vastly different for everything which is physical, chemical, biological. We are slowly coming out of the prehistoric time for space, now, because of the reduction in launch cost, it will be much easier to go to space and what was far away, is now within our reach.”

Kamoun concludes: “When people said the sky is the limit, we can now say that the sky is not the limit anymore.”

Please note, this article will appear in issue 12 of Health Europa Quarterly, which is available to read now.

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