The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the largest international projects of all time, in which Europe is cooperating with the USA, Russia, Japan and Canada. After completion of the 450-tonne ISS, more than 1200 cubic metres of pressurised space are available, in which up to seven crew members have already carried out a large number of scientific experiments in an orbit of around 400 km. The European Space Agency (ESA) recently extended European funding for its operation from 2024 to 2028. The ISS continues to provide research institutions and industrial companies with a unique laboratory for conducting medical research and development projects with the aim of protecting human health both in space and on earth.
Industrial players such as Airbus and OHB as well as national and European research programmes offer pharmaceutical companies, universities and research institutions attractive and efficient access to space research, accelerating the development of new drugs, cures and products in the billion-euro market for pharmaceutical and medical technology. Amongst other topics, the INNOspace Masters innovation competition aims to support new biomedical projects related to space. It especially intends to offer attractive access to space research to companies and research institutions that do not come from space via the partners in the innovation competition. The competition also supports start-ups that want to commercialise technologies and processes from space research or use the laboratory environment of the ISS for their own product development.
Medical research in microgravity on the ISS
The European research module Columbus was installed on the ISS on 11 February 2008. Columbus and other research laboratories of participating nations have supported a wide range of research projects that are helping to gain a better understanding of human health, which are obscured by gravity on Earth. The very low gravity, or microgravity, on the ISS provides ideal conditions for medical research with the aim of providing new insights into the effects of long-term space travel on human health (e.g. ageing process, radiation exposure, eyesight changes). Furthermore, new insights can be gained into widespread biomedical issues on earth, such as diseases like cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s. In microgravity, human cells and proteins grow faster and more three-dimensionally than on Earth. Experiments on the ISS give scientists a better insight into protein structure and allow the development of high-quality protein crystals, which optimise pharmaceutical drugs and reduce side effects. The positive effects of microgravity can also be used to grow what are known as 3D DNA-origami crystals, which are used in medicine to elucidate the structure of biomolecules. Elucidating the structure of a biomolecule is an essential step in the development of a suitable drug to combat the illness. However, this process often takes several years on Earth and comes with high costs. Research on the ISS helps to make these development processes faster and more cost-effective. These examples illustrate the significance of the ISS as an important laboratory for biomedical research, where scientists carry out experiments that are impossible or extremely difficult on Earth.
Market potential through technology transfer
Numerous research findings and technologies originally developed for space applications have been transferred to the health sector and are now successfully implemented in medical products. The following examples give an impression of the enormous possibilities of space research for medical research and technology development:
Commercial actors provide access to space experiment
National research programmes and commercial providers support the design and implementation of scientific and industrial experiments on the ISS. This also provides attractive access to space research for companies and research institutions that do not come from space. One of the commercial providers is Airbus, which operates the myBiorack facility on the ISS. This initiative aims to provide cost-effective access to microgravity research and reuse existing hardware to shorten the payload integration schedule. This will allow Airbus customers to have short-term access to the ISS, ideally within one year of signing the contract. Experiments will be sent to the ISS and installed in the myBiorack-compatible facilities by the crew. After its return from the ISS, the experiment is handed back to the customer. Airbus supports its customers throughout the entire period from the conception, planning and implementation of the experiment on the ISS. A further commercial provider, OHB System GmbH, is developing key experimental facilities and infrastructure elements for the ISS and has been responsible for engineering, integration and operational support for plenty experiments of the Columbus research module for more than ten years. In 2019, OHB has been awarded a contract by ESA for the development of three Biolab experiments on board the ISS. The scientific experiments are concerned with wound healing of human skin, the behaviour of lung cells and the repair mechanisms of bacteria in space.
The INNOspace Masters, hosted by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and its partners Airbus, OHB and German ESA Business Incubation Centres are looking for new project proposals for medical research and development projects related to space. Special attention will also be paid to projects supporting the commercialisation of medical technologies and procedures from space research. Participants from universities, start-ups, research institutions and industry, including those from the non-space sector, can win well suited prizes to realise their project ideas.