How Big Pharma Was Wooed To Space-Based 'Business Park'

NASA astronaut Drew Feustel
NASA

The most exclusive business park for humankind is so remote that it takes a rocket to get there — and big pharma is among the growth industries in this difficult-to-reach location.

The "weightless" lab is packed with experiments that develop drugs and 3D-print human tissue, among other things. It's called the U.S. National Laboratory and its address is on the International Space Station. Its sole manager — Florida's non-profit Center for the Advancement of Space (CASIS) — has been in charge there for eight years, working with astronauts who contend with packed schedules and a dangerous environment.

While CASIS says its ecosystem is growing and thriving, NASA's Office of the Inspector General criticized the organization for its work, as late as January 2018: "The organization has underperformed on tasks important to achieving NASA's goal of building a commercial space economy in low Earth orbit," the OIG wrote in a report at that time. "After more than five years of operation, CASIS has not fully met a majority of the goals and expectations set out by NASA," it added. (At the time, NASA said it concurred or partially concurred with OIG recommendations, although OIG and NASA clashed as to how the report's performance metrics for CASIS were defined.)

Yet CASIS says it has been working hard amid unique requirements for its lab. It's a tough place to work, because the principal investigators are nowhere near their experiments. Further, astronaut time is precious — so experiments ideally are somewhat autonomous, able to be controlled from Earth or to run on their own.

CASIS had a classic "blue ocean" advantage — the ability to offer experiment environments that are completely unavailable to competitors, for obvious reasons — but at the same time, it had to move quickly to gain community trust.

Any success so far is due to quick growth in partnerships, said Ken Shields, the laboratory's chief operating officer, in an interview. "We knew very quickly we had a limited time to get our organization and the national lab ramped up," he said, which required a good deal of forecasting. One of the potential winners CASIS identified was "big pharma", and nearly a decade later that idea is paying off in a big way, Shields said.

While that industry is thriving, there are special requirements to consider. In space, experiments can take years to plan due to requirements in fire safety and astronaut safety — not to mention the usual research approvals and funding challenges that principal investigators go through at their individual institutions.

Shields said his non-profit's first step was to understand who in big pharma was investing "a lot of dollars in applied development", and then make the pitch to those folks about how microgravity could simplify the production of drugs. CASIS had to rapidly demonstrate a robust supply chain of rocket launches and high-speed connections to allow results to come out quickly.

While drug development takes years of work (meaning tangible financial results can often come decades down the line) what CASIS can point to is demonstrated interest of well-known industry names. Merck has studied the crystallization of antibodies in space. AstraZeneca recently launched a regenerative medicine payload. And Dover Lifesciences won a technology in space award (sponsored by Boeing) to crystallize a protein complex that is tough to make in Earth's gravity.

CASIS' initial agreement with NASA, which started in 2011, was extended in July 2017. The current cooperative agreement will last until September 2024 with a total cost, for this seven-year segment, of $196 million. In the next few years, CASIS anticipates flying payloads in tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, advanced materials and physical sciences. The goals of these experiments are wide-ranging, but often touch on themes such as reducing manufacturing cost or improving the health outcomes of senior citizens.

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The most exclusive business park for humankind is so remote that it takes a rocket to get there — and big pharma is among the growth industries in this difficult-to-reach location.

The "weightless" lab is packed with experiments that develop drugs and 3D-print human tissue, among other things. It's called the U.S. National Laboratory and its address is on the International Space Station. Its sole manager — Florida's non-profit Center for the Advancement of Space (CASIS) — has been in charge there for eight years, working with astronauts who contend with packed schedules and a dangerous environment.

While CASIS says its ecosystem is growing and thriving, NASA's Office of the Inspector General criticized the organization for its work, as late as January 2018: "The organization has underperformed on tasks important to achieving NASA's goal of building a commercial space economy in low Earth orbit," the OIG wrote in a report at that time. "After more than five years of operation, CASIS has not fully met a majority of the goals and expectations set out by NASA," it added. (At the time, NASA said it concurred or partially concurred with OIG recommendations, although OIG and NASA clashed as to how the report's performance metrics for CASIS were defined.)

Yet CASIS says it has been working hard amid unique requirements for its lab. It's a tough place to work, because the principal investigators are nowhere near their experiments. Further, astronaut time is precious — so experiments ideally are somewhat autonomous, able to be controlled from Earth or to run on their own.

CASIS had a classic "blue ocean" advantage — the ability to offer experiment environments that are completely unavailable to competitors, for obvious reasons — but at the same time, it had to move quickly to gain community trust.

Any success so far is due to quick growth in partnerships, said Ken Shields, the laboratory's chief operating officer, in an interview. "We knew very quickly we had a limited time to get our organization and the national lab ramped up," he said, which required a good deal of forecasting. One of the potential winners CASIS identified was "big pharma", and nearly a decade later that idea is paying off in a big way, Shields said.

While that industry is thriving, there are special requirements to consider. In space, experiments can take years to plan due to requirements in fire safety and astronaut safety — not to mention the usual research approvals and funding challenges that principal investigators go through at their individual institutions.

Shields said his non-profit's first step was to understand who in big pharma was investing "a lot of dollars in applied development", and then make the pitch to those folks about how microgravity could simplify the production of drugs. CASIS had to rapidly demonstrate a robust supply chain of rocket launches and high-speed connections to allow results to come out quickly.

While drug development takes years of work (meaning tangible financial results can often come decades down the line) what CASIS can point to is demonstrated interest of well-known industry names. Merck has studied the crystallization of antibodies in space. AstraZeneca recently launched a regenerative medicine payload. And Dover Lifesciences won a technology in space award (sponsored by Boeing) to crystallize a protein complex that is tough to make in Earth's gravity.

CASIS' initial agreement with NASA, which started in 2011, was extended in July 2017. The current cooperative agreement will last until September 2024 with a total cost, for this seven-year segment, of $196 million. In the next few years, CASIS anticipates flying payloads in tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, advanced materials and physical sciences. The goals of these experiments are wide-ranging, but often touch on themes such as reducing manufacturing cost or improving the health outcomes of senior citizens.

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I've been writing about space exploration since 2004. I began full-time freelancing about this topic in September 2012, after working as a business reporter, copy editor...