Why is Big Pharma Interested in the Space Economy?
Co-authored by Laura Attwood
As costs of low-orbit space operations are decreasing, the commercial viability of the space economy is strengthening. Private enterprises are in greater numbers considering how access to the space economy can facilitate their operations on Earth, or, their expansion into space.
Recently we polled 250 senior executives across industries globally in our 2018 Industry Megatrends Survey and asked them to rate the potential disruption to their industry’s current business model from the Space Economy. Interestingly, a high percentage of pharmaceutical company executives (60%) said the space economy will have a high disruption on their sector in the coming decades.
This somewhat unusual response begs the question: “Why are big pharmaceuticals, or Big Pharma, interested in the Space Economy?”
In a nutshell, space affords Big Pharma unique conditions in order to improve their drugs and potentially find new treatments.
The space economy is not a new phenomenon with pharma one of the earliest adopters in the space economy dating back to 1973. The Skylab mission served as a laboratory to perform various space manufacturing experiments such as crystal growth. Pharma’s involvement, however, is gaining traction and commercial research is increasing. Companies that offer ‘space as a service’ and the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), are enabling a greater number of these pharmaceutical development firms to take advantage of the environment in space.
The main attraction for pharmaceutical developers, microgravity changes how crystal structures develop and in the process creates better samples than can be grown on Earth. Improving the 3D structure can have a positive impact on drug delivery, manufacturing and storage. These are three limiting factors in the development of drugs on Earth. Positive benefits include the potential to reduce an infusion that could take several hours to a quick injection; improving manufacturing, which is a costly and complex component of biopharmaceuticals; and improving drug storage, currently, most biologics are fragile structures that need to be kept at very specific temperatures.
Merck & Co sent its latest blockbuster cancer drug, Keytruda, into space to understand the impact of the microgravity environment on the structure, delivery method and purification of the drug. A scientist at Merck has conducted 13 zero gravity experiments since 1993 for the company. Eli Lily, AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Novartis are all Big Pharma firms that have taken advantage of space as a service.
In addition to manufacturing, experiments in microgravity have the potential to improve understanding of underlying disease mechanisms, with numerous companies sending ‘mousetronauts’ to space to study multiple diseases. Accelerated models of human disease can expedite the discovery of molecular markers, aiding drug design and development.
A long-term goal is the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals in a low orbit. While manufacturing in a low orbit could improve drugs, it could also increase the price. Biological molecules already have a higher price tag than their small molecule counterparts, primarily due to the complexity of the manufacturing process, adding transport to a dedicated low orbit manufacturing facility is likely to add to this cost.
Source: BMI Research — Megatrends Survey 2018
While not a new market by any means, industries are using the space economy as a proverbial launching pad more frequently to streamline their operations on Earth and even expand into space. Big pharma is positioning itself one of the biggest proponents of the space economy, attempting to use microgravity to improve on drug delivery, treatment, manufacturing and storage while contending with the prospect of rising costs for these new improved drugs and treatments.
This is the first in what will become a series of Megatrends developed for The Why? Forum.
Laura Attwood is Lead Medical Device News & Companies Analyst for BMI Research
Marina Petroleka is the Global Head of Industry Research for BMI Research
 For the purposes of our survey, we gave our respondents the following definition of space economy: Space economy is the full range of activities and the use of resources that create value and benefits to human beings in the course of exploring, researching, understanding, managing, and utilizing space. Source: Space Safety Magazine