NASA administrator Jim Bridenstein wants to move up the timetable for an astronaut landing on Mars to 2033. He told a House subcommittee April 3, "We need to learn how to live and work in another world." Part of the plan may include transporting and manufacturing complex drugs on Mars.
Purdue University researchers Alina Alexeenko, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Elizabeth Topp, professor of industrial and physical pharmacy, say freeze-drying drugs is one way they can make the trip. Biologics contain living organisms. Some examples are cancer and diabetes drugs.
Freeze-drying drugs is not new. In fact, it's done in almost half of biopharmaceutical medications created. But the process, called lyophilization, will have to be improved. Alexeenko compares it to baking cookies in the oven, one batch at a time.
She says you have the recipe but you don't necessarily know what's going on until it's done and you pull them out. Topps says it could work in space because you freeze-dry drugs at low pressure and low temperatures similar to what you would have on Mars.
"Of course the thing you're missing is gravity, so if you now try to freeze something in a gravity-free environment then pull off the ice - the liquid on earth that normally would have been at the bottom - there isn't any bottom anymore," explains Topp.
It would be sterile, Alexeenko points out, because there aren't any sources of contamination on Mars.
New control methods and sensors are improving the freeze-drying process. The sensors can provide real-time information and controls can keep the process within a range that's safe for the molecules that are impacted. Space is also clean, Alexeenko says, and that sterile environment can help if you are making drugs.
The two have already put their technology to the test. This same process freeze-dried bacteria sent to the space station to treat the water.
Their research can also be used for other industries, like manufacturing.