Approximately 90% of all small molecule medications for common ailments, like aspirin and antihistamines, are formed as crystals.
The structure and purity of these crystals are crucial and can have an impact on how the drug is administered to a patient.
To optimize and improve treatment options for patients affected by diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even chronic pain, pharmaceutical companies are turning to the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory to leverage its unique environment to grow new crystal forms and more homogenous crystals.
Previous space-based research has shown that in the absence of gravity, crystals often grow more uniformly and contain fewer imperfections than their terrestrial counterparts.
To that end, Redwire Corporation developed an in-space pharmaceutical manufacturing platform called the Pharmaceutical In-space Laboratory (PIL) Bio-crystal Optimization eXperiment (BOX) to crystallise small organic molecules in microgravity.
Essentially a “lab-in-a-box,” the facility will enable pharmaceutical companies and researchers to grow small-batch crystals for protein-based pharmaceuticals.
The PIL-BOX, which was recently installed on the orbiting laboratory following its launch on SpaceX’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission, was designed to be a highly configurable system capable of supporting a variety of experiments and products.
For its initial mission, Redwire is putting PIL-BOX through its paces and partnering with Eli Lilly and Company (Lilly) to conduct a series of experiments focused on optimising and improving the drug discovery and development process.
“PIL-BOX is designed to take solutions of different materials from different bags and mix them together to form crystals,” said Ken Savin, Redwire's Chief Scientist. “We’re hoping we can use this platform as a screening mechanism to grow crystals.”
The company’s Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP) houses the PIL-BOX Fluidics Cassette (FC) — a series of bags, pumps and valves that control fluid handling operations to support the crystallisation process.
According to Savin, PIL-BOX can support 10 experiments at a time, and the company plans to cycle through different conditions and different samples to see if they can grow crystals in the bags.
“When you’re producing medications for people, you need to know that every dose is the same,” said Savin. “So, having the ability to produce uniform crystals in space is very beneficial not only to the pharmaceutical industry, but to multiple other industries here on Earth.”
This ISS National Lab-sponsored experiment was awarded through a NASA in-space production applications solicitation aiming to stimulate demand for manufacturing in low Earth orbit.
Savin is hopeful that PIL-BOX could be used to produce small amounts of high-quality crystals in space that could then be used to enhance pharmaceutical production on Earth.
“With PIL-BOX, we can take a very small amount, maybe a thimbleful of crystals, bring them back to the ground and use them as seeds to make even more crystals,” he said.
“So, this enables us to tap into the power of the microgravity environment without having to send up tons and tons of material, making this an economically viable approach.”