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By Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts-finalMost of us are familiar with the National Laboratories in the United States, which exists for the purpose of advancing science and technology to fulfill the needs of our nation’s research and development goals. But what do you know about the newest, the fastest, and the loftiest one, the International Space Station National Laboratory?

The International Space Station, or ISS, has been aloft in low Earth orbit and continuously crewed since 2000. From the beginning, it has been an engineering marvel and a platform for space exploration, Earth observation, materials and systems engineering, technology development, and fundamental discovery in broad disciplines of life and physical sciences. While open for business but still under construction in 2005, the U.S. operating segment of the ISS was designated by Congress as our newest National Lab—reserved for space-based experiments that bring back benefit to life on Earth (i.e., experiments that are not focused on space exploration). In 2011, when the last U.S. space shuttle had returned safely to Earth after completing its final assembly mission to the ISS, NASA selected the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, to manage the ISS National Lab. Until then, NASA had been managing the ISS U.S. National Lab and funding most of the research and technology development performed there. As a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, CASIS was selected to maximize use of this unparalleled platform for innovation to benefit humankind and inspire a new generation of scientific discovery by inciting the imagination of entrepreneurs and scientists alike.

Image courtesy of CASIS.

Image courtesy of CASIS.

How can pharmaceutical research on the ISS National Lab lead to new innovation? The ISS National Lab is first and foremost a laboratory for research and technology demonstration. But unlike any other lab, the ISS continuously orbits the Earth and operates in the harsh environment of space. Microgravity, or weightlessness, induces a vast array of molecular changes in organisms encompassing bacteria to humans, including global alterations in gene expression, physiological response, and three-dimensional aggregation of cells into tissue-like architecture.

 Rick Mastracchio working with capillary flow experiment. Image courtesy of CASIS.

Rick Mastracchio working with capillary flow experiment. Image courtesy of CASIS.

In addition, microgravity alters many observable phenomena within the physical and life sciences that directly impact many facets of pharmaceutical sciences ranging from drug discovery and preclinical screening to drug formulation and drug delivery systems (e.g., lipid-based, transdermal, nanoparticle-based) to pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, and drug metabolism studies in robust cell culture—and animal-based models. All of these areas of research are not only possible on the ISS National Lab, but the pace of research can be greatly accelerated by CASIS-facilitated access to space-based research facilities on the ISS National Lab. Access to the lab is affordable and repeatable because of the unique cooperative agreement between NASA and CASIS to enable science in space for Earth benefit. To quote the innovative minds at Google, “Everyone is working on delivering the next 10%, but if you can work on delivering 10 times the solution you have the chance to really change things.” The ISS National Lab is your platform to accelerate pharmaceutical innovation by 10X and really change things.

Learn more about CASIS and ISS National Lab projects by visiting the CASIS web page Research on Station, the On Station blog, NASA’s ISS National Laboratory web page, the A Lab Aloft blog, the IEEE Pulse article Why Space? Harvesting the Benefits of Science in Orbit, and by attending the upcoming AAPS webinar Science in Space for Life on Earth–New Research Opportunities for Pharmaceutical Sciences on the International Space Station on November 20, 2014.

Michael Roberts, Ph.D., is senior research pathway manager at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) where he works on the Portfolio Management team to solicit, select, develop and enable flight projects in the life and physical sciences to the International Space Station National Lab. Before CASIS, Roberts worked as a microbial ecologist, molecular biologist, and group lead for a government contractor in the NASA Advanced Life Support program at the Kennedy Space Center.