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Adelaide Uni leads testing for pills in space

Stephen Kuper
Adelaide Uni leads testing for pills in space

A team of researchers from the University of Adelaide is studying how exposure to microgravity and space radiation on the International Space Station affects the stability of pharmaceutical tablet formulations.

Two separate missions will send science payloads into orbit around Earth: the first will test how tablets cope with the environment inside the International Space Station (ISS) US National Laboratory, while the second mission scheduled for early 2021 will test how tablets cope outside the ISS.

University of Adelaide’s Professor Volker Hessel, research director of the Centre for Sustainable Planetary and Space Resources and Professor in the School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials, explained, “Our microgravity and space radiation investigations, evaluating pharmaceutical stability, are the first science payloads to be sent by the university to the ISS.

“The investigation will be conducted inside and outside the ISS National Laboratory in two separately owned and operated research facilities,” Professor Hessel added. 


Materials used in the tablets being tested, which are packaged in blister packs as they would be available commercially, include Ibuprofen as a pharmaceutical active ingredient and vitamin C, and excipients which are found in abundance in the lunar surface such as silica, magnesium silicate (talcum) and calcium phosphate.

These materials and others could be used for new pharmaceutical formulations which may benefit the stability and bioavailability of formulations on Earth as well as those for use in space.

“The tablets, which were made at the University of Adelaide, will be exposed to the microgravity and cosmic rays found in the harsh environment of space for six months before returning to Earth where we will test what effect the space environment has had on them,” said Professor Hessel.

The first mission will be launched on Wednesday, 30 September, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA, and will reach the ISS on Saturday, 3 October. Space Tango’s automated CubeLab hardware containing the tablets will be installed inside the ISS.


Professor Hessel added, “We only used ingredients from materials that are only available on the moon, and in so doing, we are making the first steps towards autonomous on-board pharmaceutical manufacturing.”

Space Tango CEO and co-founder Twyman Clements added, “Space Tango is pleased to coordinate with Alpha Space on a companion external study as we support the University of Adelaide’s initial mission to the ISS. This investigation highlights the true spirit of cooperation that is at the foundation of advancing ISS capabilities and the future of the commercial space economy.”

The second mission, scheduled for early 2021, will see tablets in Alpha Space’s Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) platform installed outside the ISS, in the vacuum of space.

“It is excellent to see collaborations with international partners, and between implementation partners, taking shape. These partnerships allow us to leverage the multiple environments on the ISS and accelerate science and discovery. We look forward to supporting the University of Adelaide in future initiatives where access to our external platform can accelerate their ongoing space efforts,” explained Mark Gittleman, president and chief executive of Alpha Space. 

Today, astronauts living in space 250 miles above the Earth’s surface have a supply of fully stocked and non-expired medicines courtesy of commercial resupply missions from Earth. However, future astronauts that endure a three-year trip to Mars may not have the same convenience.

Without access to frequent resupply missions, pre-packed medicine for their journey will likely expire as most commercially available medicines have an average shelf life of two years, and sometimes less.

Professor Hessel added, “Collecting data on medicine stabilisation for long-term space missions using both the internal and external platforms allows us to generate highly innovative data sets that will help direct future on-orbit and on-demand production of medicines.”

While extending the shelf life of medicine might seem feasible, future astronauts will still be limited by both storage capacity and variety.

“As our first study on the ISS, we are excited to have the opportunity to work with strong and experienced partners like Space Tango and Alpha Space to support our science. We look forward to working together on future studies on these internal and external platforms to further advance our space resource initiatives across interdisciplinary medicine process technology applications,” Professor Hessel said. 

The ability to produce drugs in space and on-demand could be the best solution to both of these challenges with added benefits to pharmaceutical companies here on Earth as well. This is why the University of Adelaide, Space Tango and Alpha Space are working together to provide information towards this solution.

Space research is one of the University of Adelaide’s key industry engagement priorities as set out in its strategic plan Future Making.

Space Tango’s mission is to manufacture health and technology products in space that create value and transformational solutions. As a leader in automated systems, Space Tango pursues pathways to on-orbit production with a diverse partner base.

Alpha Space is an ISS National Laboratory implementation partner and commercialisation partner, working through a cooperative agreement with NASA and a user agreement with the International Space Station US National Laboratory.

The University of Adelaide is a world-class research and teaching institution, centred on discovering new knowledge, pursuing innovation and preparing the educated leaders of tomorrow.

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