How Is Biotechnology Used In Space Exploration Missions?

Andrew Williams explores the use of biotechnology in space exploration missions

Several organisations around the world are currently engaged in pioneering work to assess the use of biotechnology in the development of materials for space exploration missions.  So, what are the key objectives of such initiatives? And what biotechnology equipment and facilities are being used as part of the projects?

Cell Therapy Treatments

One company currently engaged in pioneering work in this field is the Israeli outfit Pluristem Therapeutics, which is carrying out groundbreaking work to evaluate the potential of using cell therapies in preventing and treating medical conditions caused during space missions. As Yaky Yanay, CEO at the company, explains, astronauts involved in long-term space exploration missions are forced to operate in a very challenging environment, and are exposed to the harmful effects of radiation and microgravity, leading to muscle and bone loss – as well as other potentially serious medical conditions. In an effort to address these problems, Pluristem is currently working with NASA on the Therapeutic Stromal Cells for Health in Space project, which has been selected to pre-clinically evaluate the potential of the company’s PLX cell therapies in preventing and treating medical conditions caused during space missions, including indications relating to blood, bone, muscle, brain and heart.

“The use of placental cells allows us to benefit from a biologic resource which is rich and diverse, pro-angiogenic and immunoregulatory. The cells’ ability to react to signals from the patient’s body is a great advantage, leading to a customised solution in an off-the-shelf product, which encourages the body to regenerate and actually heal itself,” says Yanay.

Placenta Cells To Regenerate Muscles

The latest project is based on previous studies carried out by Pluristem, which demonstrated that placenta expanded (PLX) cells have the potential ability to help regenerate muscles, as well as protect and regenerate the haematological system following exposure to radiation.  According to Yanay, a study testing the company’s cell therapy product for muscle regeneration following total hip replacement surgery showed a ‘significant increase of 500% in muscle strength in a patient treated with the cell therapy product compare to placebo – and a significant improvement in muscle volume of approximately 300% over the placebo group.’

“An improvement in muscle force was even found in the contralateral – non-operated – leg, suggesting that Pluristem’s cells can exert a systemic as well as a local effect. A phase 3 study is currently ongoing in the USA., EU and Israel,” he says.

As far as radiation exposure is concerned, Yanay is keen to stress that efficacy studies are not permitted in humans, meaning that studies are currently conducted via the FDA animal rule pathway.  Here, he reveals that a series of studies conducted by the US government to test the company’s cells as treatment for Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) have shown a ‘statistically significant improvement in the survival rate and recovery of blood cell production in animals exposed to high levels of radiation.’

“Safety data showed that the cells did not affect non-irradiated animals, indicating an ability to treat individuals without determining their degree of exposure to radiation,” he says.

Cells As A prophylactic Countermeasure Against ARS

Another project is in collaboration with the US Department of Defense, testing the cells as a prophylactic countermeasure against ARS, administered prior to radiation exposure. These animal studies demonstrated that the cell therapy product, administered 24 hours before radiation exposure, and again 72 hours after exposure, resulted in a significant increase in survival rates, from 4% survival rate in the placebo group to 74% in the treated group. In addition, the data shows an increase in recovery of blood lineages (platelets, neutrophils, white blood cells, and lymphocytes) and a favourable safety profile.

“The cells are grown using a proprietary three-dimensional expansion technology, an environment simulating the human body, that can be used to grow PLX cells in mass quantities with batch-to-batch consistency at the company’s FDA, EMA and PMDA-approved, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility,” says Yanay.

“We seek to expand our product for use with respect to additional medical conditions with the goal of bringing innovative, safe and effective treatments for patients around the world,” he adds.

Producing Proteins For Space Food

Elsewhere, the Finnish food technology start-up Solar Foods is currently engaged in a novel project with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a system for producing proteins for space flights to Mars. As Kimmo Isbjörnssund, head of the ESA Business Incubation Centre Finland, explains, the ongoing space incubation project is focused on further identifying the nutritional needs for long-term space missions, as well as creating a concept for zero gravity food production processes while solving the nutrient recovery challenge and ‘describing the overall concept for food from CO2 and electricity on Mars and other long-term missions.’

“On space missions, there is as even greater disconnection from land use – that is, agriculture – to produce food. Therefore, the systems to produce food need to be more autonomous and independent from external supplies,” says Isbjörnssund.

“As much as possible needs to be generated and nutrients recycled on-site.  Solar Foods may be such a solution and the purpose of ESA Business Incubation is to learn more about this,” he adds.

Solar Foods was initially established to commercialise research carried out at the VTT Technical research centre of Finland and LUT University (Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology),which was focused on developing a solution for converting emission-free electricity and CO2 captured from air into edible calories. According to Pasi Vainikka, co-founder and CEO at the company, a microbial cell was identified as the best natural ‘factory’ to achieve such a complex task. The result was the creation of Solein, a protein created by harvesting naturally occurring single cells – or microbes – and immersing them in a liquid growth medium inside a fermenter very similar to those used in breweries and wineries.  The liquid is then fed continuously with tiny bubbles of hydrogen and CO2, as well as other nutrients including nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and potassium – which Vainikka describes as ‘the same nutrients that plants normally take through roots from the soil.’

“The microbes eat these ingredients to grow and multiply. As the liquid grows thicker, some of it is continuously removed and dried. The dried powder is the whole cells that are up to 65% protein. The macronutrient composition of the cells is very similar to that of dried soy or algae,” he says.

Although the company currently operates a pilot plant in Espoo capable of producing in the order of 1kg of Solein per day, it recognises that another 1,000 times scale-up is needed in order to commercialise the protein – a feat Vainikka describes as ‘an intellectual, scientific and technological challenge.’

“Even if technical challenges are overcome, there is also a lot to do in terms of food product development, factory engineering and construction as well as novel food permitting,” he says.

Although coy about revealing the exact details because of ongoing IPR processes, Vainikka points out that the wider reason for the company’s activities is a strong belief that the disconnection of food production from agriculture and aquaculture provides us with the opportunity to ‘produce food even in space.’

“On Earth, this disconnection comes with several environmental benefits. So far the result is we have been able to grow protein in a skid-scale system. There is much left to do, but it really works. We have an initial concept for producing protein for a crew of six,” he says.

“The next steps depend upon the availability of public funding. As a start-up we cannot complete it based on 100% VC funding,” he adds.

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