Israeli hi-tech initiative SpacePharma is busy 'turning science fiction into science fact'

SpacePharma can control and monitor their space experiments with nothing more than a smartphone.


A drug treatment for lung disease wasn’t working: it was rejected by patients’ bodies.
So a team of Israeli scientists sent the drug up on a rocket into space. The absence of gravity modified the drug’s protein crystals, and when the compound was returned to Earth, the treatment worked.

Welcome to SpacePharma, a ten-year-old Israeli hi-tech initiative that is busy “turning science fiction into science fact”, helping improve the health of those on Earth by sending experiments into space.

It is indeed the stuff of science fiction, as SpacePharma can control and monitor some of these experiments with nothing more than a smartphone.

Everything depends on the fact that the space environment has little or no gravity, and it is the effect of that on cells and drug compounds which SpacePharma studies — producing jaw-dropping results.
Its scientists work out of a former shopping centre in an unassuming Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya.

Dr Paul Kamoun, chief marketing and business development officer, explained the basic premise: “To do, in space, things which can’t be done on Earth, or to do things which can be done better in space than on Earth.”

He went on: “The space environment is essentially a new world, where physics, chemistry and biology behave differently.

"We take advantage of this environment to innovate in directions which are not possible here on Earth, because of gravity. You can simulate many different things on earth, but not absence of gravity.”

The bodies of human beings “have been designed to live in gravity. Our cells have adapted to this environment. But when you take cells and you put them in another environment” — then all kinds of things can happen.

For example, when bacteria are sent into space, some become much more virulent, some much less.

And once scientists can pinpoint why there is a difference in the virulence of bacteria, it will enable them, Dr Kamoun says, “to discover new antibiotics”.

It has been known for decades that the absence of gravity can have a profound effect on compounds, largely through experiments sent on satellites to the International Space Station (ISS). But nothing was ever done commercially to explore this — until SpacePharma’s co-founder and chairman, Yossi Yamin, decided to see if the theories could be translated into practice.

Speaking to a group of British supporters of Technion University last month, Dr Yamin admitted that in the early days of the company “people thought I was either a liar or a fantasist”.

But he was convinced — and soon, others were too — that there were astonishing opportunities in space medicine, to improve and extend drug applications.

SpacePharma has two strands of work: it either sends into space compounds that cannot be recovered, but which produce data which can be studied, and extrapolated from, back on Earth; or it sends cells and materials which do return to Earth, and whose altered forms — often in the shape of protein crystals — can be developed into life-saving drugs.

The next step, Dr Kamoun announces with some glee, “is a real factory in space”, which he hopes will not only produce “purer and bigger protein crystals” for the medical industry, but also material for the electronics industry.

SpacePharma’s main product is miniaturised robotic laboratories. “We can fly them on different types of vehicles,” says Dr Kamoun.

“Today we fly them on our own nano-satellite — but we cannot bring the satellite back. We flew on the ISS with the advantage that we can bring things back; and we are soon going to try flying with a mini-shuttle — a space shuttle with no astronauts on board.”

Although the company has had good results from experiments that they were unable to bring back to Earth, their choice would be always to recover material if they can.

Now SpacePharma is working towards life after the ISS is closed in 2030. It’s preparing to work with Bereshit 2, the successor to the Israeli spacecraft Bereshit, which made a crash-landing on the Moon in 2019.

Bereshit 2 is expected to launch in 2024. “It will be more ambitious, because instead of a single satellite, it will have three different vehicles. One will stay in orbit around the Moon, and two will be dropped on the surface of the Moon. We hope to send our mini-labs inside this mission.”

The SpacePharma lab is about the size of a shoebox and weighs only four kilos. Most payloads going into space (and back) are about 2,000 kilos, so it’s relatively easy for SpacePharma to hitch a ride.

The mission duration is decided by the company which launches the rocket or satellite. Customers pay for their flights on the SpacePharma platform.

“It’s a revolution,” says Dr Kamoun. But SpacePharma needs to educate the market, and is taking a leading role in organising a conference in Cannes next February, in which “we are trying to bring the life science and health community together with the space community”.

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