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Researchers Will Try to Grow Space Drugs on the Space Station

“NASA needs to develop self-sustaining measures to keep humans healthy in space because calling 911 is not an option."

Fungal organisms are no strangers to space travel. From the rogue fungi that took over the Mir space station to the mycological extremophiles that recently survived exposure to the vacuum of space, these organisms have developed a knack for life off Earth.

Now, for the first time, scientists will be sending a batch of fungi to the International Space Station (ISS) for the purpose of drug development. Four different strains of Aspergillus nidulans, a fungus used as a model organism in a wide variety of scientific research, will be sent to the station with the SpaceX CRS-8 mission, currently scheduled for launch on April 8.

The goal of this experiment—called the NASA Micro-10 project—is to find out if exposure to microgravity and high radiation will stimulate the fungi's creativity. A. nidulans has proven itself to be an impressively adaptable organism on Earth, capable of producing compounds that can be used in pharmaceutical treatments like the antifungal medicine anidulafungin. Scientists think it may also have the potential to fight illnesses like cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and osteoporosis.

Aspergillus nidulans culture. Image: 222fgb

The hope is that sending samples into the intense environment of the ISS will alter the fungi's metabolism and gene expression, which could in turn lead to new insights about its applications to medical research. More broadly, however, the study will provide a benchmark for drug development in space, which will be an increasingly important field as astronauts wade farther away from Earth.

"This is the first project where we see an intersection between pharmaceutical science and space exploration," said pharmacologist Clay Wang, the principal investigator of Micro-10, in a statement.

Wang and Venkateswaran holding fungi samples. Image: Gus Ruelas

"Drugs have an expiration date," he continued. "NASA's human mission to Mars is expected to last anywhere from one to three years. Not all drugs are going to be stable in that time period, so the ability to make drugs in space will enable us to go further away from Earth and will also benefit future space explorations."

Presuming the samples arrive safely at the station next week, the current crew of astronauts will place them in a comfortable, balmy environment of 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) for roughly one week. Then, they'll preserve the organisms' growth and progress by storing them in near-freezing temperatures until they are sent back to Earth in May, where they will be compared against control samples grown in ground laboratories.

"This is an ambitious project for NASA to see if we could have some breakthrough in space biology," commented Kasthuri "Venkat" Venkateswaran, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-principal investigator of Micro-10. "Until now, we have sent bacteria and yeast to the ISS. We have also exposed fungi to facilities outside ISS, but this is the first time we are growing fungi inside ISS to seek new drug discovery."

"NASA needs to develop self-sustaining measures to keep humans healthy in space because calling 911 is not an option," he said.

Micro-10 will be launched with a number of other promising experiments including an inflatable habitat called BEAM and the ingredients for a good old-fashioned space cabbage harvest. It will be the first SpaceX cargo delivery attempt since the ill-fated CRS-7 mission exploded last June.