Space tablets splashdown on Earth


A batch of pills has returned to Earth after a year of being exposed to the environment inside the International Space Station (ISS). University of Adelaide researchers will check what the effects of some of the highest levels of radiation found beyond the Earth’s atmosphere have had on the tablets.

SpaceX pills

SpaceX CRS-23 Dragon cargo capsule departing the International Space Station on 30 September 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV).

“We are researching how the harsh environment of space affects pharmaceutical tablets,” said the University of Adelaide’s Professor Volker Hessel, Research Director of the Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources and Professor in the School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials.

A batch of 60 tablets were on the ISS since they first arrived in September 2020 on board the Cygnus NG-14 mission with the University of Adelaide’s partner Space Tango They returned to Earth on board SpaceX CRS-23 Dragon cargo capsule just before 1:00 PM (AEST) Sydney time. The tablets are ibuprofen formulation specimens created by Professor Hessel’s team with extra protection against the effects of cosmic rays.

“Collecting data on medicine stabilisation for long-term space missions will help us direct future on-orbit and on-demand production of medicines.”Professor Volker Hessel

“We will check the tablets to see how their chemical and physical composition has changed during their time in space,” said Professor Hessel.

The researchers will examine how different factors affect the stability of the drug: excipient mixtures in the drug, anti-ray coatings, and how the excipients and the drug interact on a molecular level.

One day pills might have to withstand being taken from Earth to Mars and back again to help keep astronauts healthy. A long-term presence in space is dependent on sustainably using resources found in space such as material from the surface of the Moon.

“Collecting data on medicine stabilisation for long-term space missions will help us direct future on-orbit and on-demand production of medicines,” said Professor Hessel.

“Future astronauts will still be limited by both storage capacity and variety of medicines so producing drugs in space and on-demand could be the best solution and also have added benefits for the development of pharmaceuticals for use on Earth,” said Professor Hessel.

The researchers aim to help develop a tablet, using the results from their work, made solely from materials available on the Moon that is better able to withstand the effects of cosmic rays.

Findings following the tablets’ trip into space about how liquid drug nanoformulations affect their stability will be shared with clinical researchers to assist with improving drugs and vaccine delivery on Earth.

Space research is one of the University of Adelaide’s key industry engagement priorities as set out in its strategic plan Future Making.

This article first appeared on the University of Adelaide website.

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