Exomedicine is the study and exploration of medical solutions in the zero gravity environment of space to promote benefits to human health on Earth. The purpose is to advance the field, study, and practice of medicine on Earth through research investigations conducted in the microgravity conditions of space which may provide advances in understanding that cannot be achieved on Earth. Although the Soviet Union launched the first space station, Salyut 1 in 1971, the United States designed and launched Skylab with the intent of advancing the field of science both in space and with regards to terrestrial applications. Beginning as a “memorandum of understanding” between NASA and ESA in 1973, the first major microgravity experiments in space were carried out by “Spacelab”. Gravity is a fundamental force on earth that influences all biological systems at a molecular level. When biomedical research is conducted in Space, in so-called microgravity environments, certain earthbound limitations disappear, new and different findings are made, and living organisms behave very differently.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), true microgravity cannot be truly simulated on Earth. Similarly, NIH contends that the International Space Station (ISS) has the potential to further the study of: basic biological or behavioral mechanisms associated with maintaining health or developing disease, normal or pathological physiology and metabolism, and cell repair processes and tissue regeneration that occur naturally or are enhanced through medical interventions following injury or aging. Already, several research successes have been achieved in the National Laboratory on the ISS. Findings and inferences thus far indicate that there is a rich potential to explore new and potentially game-changing insights and applications in a range of areas, that includes but is not limited to protein crystallization, 3-D tissue cultures, tissue regeneration, DNA regulation, drug and vaccine development, stem cells, and treatments for diseases such as cancer and other life-threatening and debilitating conditions. Experience with crystal growth in microgravity shows potential to yield much better results. In roughly 40 space investigations, close to 50% of the cases showed better protein crystals than any produced on Earth. Protein crystallization has three major revenue-generating applications: structural biology and drug design, bioseparations, and controlled drug delivery.
There are also potential applications for new drug development. The following real-life story demonstrates the potential in this type of research: “Against all odds, several experiments survived the 2003 explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia. One of them was a protein crystallization experiment sponsored by Schering-Plough. When analyzing the results, scientists discovered a crystalline of interferon that they had never seen before. They discovered the crystal was a microgravity product and a new structure of interferon that was more medically effective in combating Hepatitis C and produced fewer side effects. Based in large part on this information, Schering-Plough reformulated one of its top selling pharmaceuticals, received FDA approval, and the new drug is now being sold.” The potential return on investment is significant. Discoveries may lead to shorter development time for intellectual property. Time to market in developing, testing, and designing new products, drugs, treatments and therapies may be shortened and human health benefits may be realized sooner.
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- Katz, Dr. Stephen (2009). “Statement to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Science and Space about “The Case for Space: Examining the Value”, http://www.niams.nih.gov/about_us/Legislation/NIAMS_NASA.asp. Presentation.
- Harper, Lynn D, Rasky, Daniel J, Schmidt, Greg, Grady, James, Pittman, Bruce (2006). “The Biotech Revolution in Space”, https://sites.google.com/site/siliconvalleyspaceclubsite/iss---hindsight--insight--foresight. Presentation.