Off-Earth drug manufacturing a step closer with space launch

A research project into off-earth digital chemistry is set to begin shortly, following a successful space launch today. The DIDO2 nano-satellite contains materials that will allow the research team to remotely test the ability to use digital chemistry to create drugs and materials as required, rather than launch payloads requiring specific medications.

The experiment was designed by Professor Lee Cronin, the University of Glasgow’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, and will involve the team remotely activating a microfluidic device inside the satellite which will bring together chemical agents. The researchers will then be able to watch the agents react via an onboard microscope.

The experiment builds on previous work by the Cronin Group to digitise chemistry and allow for the on-demand ‘printing’ of a vast array of chemical compounds.

The DIDO2 nano-satellite being loaded before launch. Image courtesy of SpacePharma

“This is a fantastic opportunity to literally take the Cronin Group’s research to new heights. Low- and zero-gravity environments offer a wide range of new opportunities for science, and we’re excited to see how this experiment progresses,” said Cronin.

“Imagine you are on living on Mars and you need access to a drug that you have not taken with you, this approach might allow you to use a digital blueprint and make the drug on demand from a minimal set of chemicals.

“This collaboration is exciting since we are going to be able to do a digitally controlled chemical experiment in space that produces a complex organic molecule that is part of a class of anti-cancer drugs under study in my laboratory. We chose this molecule as it complex one-pot three step assembly and ends by producing the drug candidate in highly pure crystalline form.”

The launch of the satellite. Image courtesy of Indian Space Research Organisation

If successful, the experiment will take a big step closer to manufacturing drugs off-Earth. Not only would such a capability greatly enhance any future manned space exploration or colonisation, but the medical possibilities of development in microgravity are numerous. In terms of exploration specifically, however, launch payloads’ efficiency would be greatly increased by the ability to manufacture on demand rather than dragging up vast numbers of specific medicines.

The current mission will be looking to form crystals of a drug currently being developed for use as a possible anti-cancer treatment. In the future, however, the technology could allow astronauts to create essentially any kind of medication they may require. Given the push towards manned Mars exploration, the capability to craft on-demand medicine will be crucial in the coming years.

The mission was one of 103 launched into space this morning on an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rocket and is part of the ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle programme. The launch was developed in partnership with SpacePharma, a company which specialises in providing scientists with access to microgravity environments, and was successfully completed just before 4am GMT/ 9am local time at Sriharikota.

Researchers pinpoint site where search for life on Mars could begin

Researchers have found a patch of land in an ancient valley on Mars that they believe is of significant interest  in the search for signs of past life forms on the Red Planet.

The site discovered by researchers from Trinity College Dublin was flooded by water in the not-too-distant past, and the suggestion that water was once present at the site means that it may be of particular interest during future missions to the Mars.

“These findings are hugely significant,” said Dr Mary Bourke of Trinity College Dublin. “Firstly, the Martian sand dunes show evidence that water may have been active near Mars’ equator – potentially in the not-too-distant past. And secondly, this location is now a potential geological target for detecting past life forms on the Red Planet, which is important to those involved in selecting sites for future missions.”

The discovery on Mars was made possible by the team from Trinity College’s previous study of the Namib Desert.

In a remote sensing study of the Namib Desert, the researchers had previously noted the same patterns occuring between migrating sand dunes.

Fieldwork subsequently showed that these patterns – described by the searchers as “arcuate striations” – were a consequence of dune sediments being left behind once groundwater had evaporated. These dune sediments later were found to be relatively immobile, which means they are left behind as the dunes continue to migrate downwind.

“On Earth, desert dunefields are periodically flooded by water in areas of fluctuating groundwater, and where lakes, rivers and coasts are found in proximity. These periodic floods leave tell-tale patterns behind them,” said Bourke.

“You can imagine our excitement when we scanned satellite images of an area on Mars and saw this same patterned calling card, suggesting that water had been present in the relatively recent past.”

The finding on Mars come just weeks after NASA described current plans for a manned mission to Mars as “fragile”, and called for the establishment of a “Marz Czar” or a specialist mission office to adequate preparations were put in place for an unprecedented mission to the Red Planet.

The hypothesis proposed by Trinity College researchers may give fresh impetus to the search for life on Mars.

“Following our work in Namibia, we hypothesise that on Mars, similar arcuate striations [patterns] exposed on the surface between dunes are also indications of fluctuating levels of salty groundwater, during a time when dunes were actively migrating down the valley.”

The researchers’ full findings are available in Geophysical Research Letters.