Small Particles, Big Impact: How an Experiment on the International Space Station could Improve Alzheimer’s Treatment

In recent years, medical research has yielded significant advancements in treating debilitating diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s. Advancements in prescription drugs have been a major factor behind the development of more effective treatments that could improve patients’ lifespans and quality of life. That said, effective medication is not enough to treat patients. For a drug to have the desired impact, its method of delivery must be optimized so the body can absorb and utilize the medicine most efficiently.[1]Additionally, the treatment must be affordable and accessible to the patient, a growing issue in the face of rising healthcare costs. In many ways, the method of delivering a treatment or medication can become a life or death issue. And the solution to these pressing challenges may soon be discovered in orbit.

On April 17, 2019, Northrop Grumman, a global aerospace and defense technology company, launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station from Wallops Island, Virginia.[2,3]The mission transported 3,700 pounds of material for scientific investigations, including the STaARS BioScience-11 project[1]. STaARS BioScience-11 is an exploration that aims to create nanosomes – which are nanoparticle delivery systems, in microgravity.[4]A nanoparticle can be anywhere from 100 nanometers in size (one-thousandth of a millimeter!), all the way down to a single nanometer. Nanoparticles can be synthesized on Earth, but this experiment aims to utilize a benefit exclusive to space as a medium.[4]

In microgravity, nanoparticles – which are already minuscule – can be made even smaller. This is crucial for drug delivery, since smaller particles have a higher ratio of surface area-to-volume. Indeed, drug uptake and delivery depend on a high surface area to exchange the medicine with tissues in the body.[4]If the surface area of the delivery system were to be increased, the required drug dosage would decrease – because the patient’s body would be able to absorb more of the given dose.[4] This can have a variety of impacts, but the most significant one is a decrease in the price of the drugs: cost is often a serious barrier to much-needed treatment, so eliminating that barrier would increase patients’ access to care.[1]

STaARS BioScience-11 specifically aims to synthesize nanosomes to treat Alzheimer’s, which is the third-leading cause of death in the United States; but the method would likely be applicable to other life-threatening, chronic conditions (such as various cancers, HIV, and multiple sclerosis).[1]While the success of the project remains to be seen, the synthesis of nanosomes in microgravity could be the key to effective, affordable solutions to some of the most devastating diseases on earth.

References:

  1. Dietrich, T. (2019, April 12). Cygnus launch from Virginia to ISS will carry suite of science. Retrieved May 26, 2019, from https://www.dailypress.com/news/science/dp-nws-antares-science-iss-20190410-story.html
  2. NASA MEDIA TELECON ON NEXT CYGNUS CARGO MISSION TO ISS (NG-11), Apr 10, 2019, virtual, 1:00 pm ET (NASA Live). (2019, April 6). Retrieved May 26, 2019, from https://spacepolicyonline.com/events/nasa-media-telecon-on-next-cygnus-cargo-mission-to-iss-ng-11-apr-10-2019-virtual-100-pm-et-nasa-live/
  3. NASA highlights science on next Cygnus mission to ISS. (2019, April 8). Retrieved May 26, 2019, from http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/NASA_Highlights_Science_on_Next_Northrop_Grumman_Mission_to_Space_Station_999.html
  4. Castor, T., & Alexander, J. S. (n.d.). STaARS BioScience-11. Retrieved May 26, 2019, from https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html#id=7941