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Manufacturing Drugs in Zero Gravity

Manufacturing Drugs in Zero Gravity

Imagine a capsule whizzing by some 200 miles overhead. It’s just big enough to hold a medium size dog (curled up and sleeping) but there is no life onboard. Instead, there is an automated laboratory designed for manufacturing pharmaceuticals. That is the vision of Varda Space Industries.

Do they really envision a future where drugs are manufactured in space at scale? Yes. I talked to Mark Herbert, VP of Biopharma Business Development at Varda, about their plans. My two big questions were 1. What is special about microgravity for this application? and 2. Why does pharmaceutical manufacturing makes sense economically?

Lifting payloads into space isn’t cheap, although the price/kilogram is coming down. On a per-gram basis, pharmaceuticals are one of the more valuable things you could make, so at some point, that can become profitable. And the reason microgravity matters is that in the vacuum of space there is no convection. That affects how crystals are formed. Experiments on the international space station with Merck’s cancer immunotherapy, pembrolizumab (Keytruda), show a more uniform particle size distribution and reduced viscosity. That has implications for how it can be delivered to patients.

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The science is pretty cool. But when I reflect on a project like this, I wonder how a project like this comes together? Sixty-five years of space exploration is part of the foundation, of course. That inspires the next generation in terms of rockets, working in microgravity etc.

What stands out is the vision it takes to make it a reality. First, there is the imagination of the end state. What do we want to achieve? What brings that to fruition is the ability to imagine and execute all the steps in between. It’s a special skill to be able to put all of that together, convince others that it’s worth doing and meet the rigid timelines of a launch schedule. Because they’re not delaying the launch just because you forgot to pack a key item for the trip.

Epic projects like this one and the de-extinction of the wooly mammoth we talked about last week are not only inspiring, they are both essential and inevitable. At some point, we can’t not try. And when that happens, human beings find themselves capable of achieving what was once thought to be impossible.

Gordon Cooper knows what that feels like:


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