Is the Future of Drug Production Located in Space?

There are advantages to operating in zero gravity

Varda capsule with parachute
An artist's rendering of the Varda capsule returning to Earth.
Varda Space Industries

Missions into space aren’t just about sending people and satellites into orbit. There’s also been an uptick in interest in seeing what, precisely, can be created there. Recent years have seen plants grown and embryos cultured in space — and now, we can add pharmaceuticals to the list of things created in orbit. As reported last month, a capsule from Varda Space Industries returned to Earth in Utah with the drug Ritonavir on board.

For the curious, Ritonavir is used in HIV treatment, and its creation involved a crystallization process — one which is arguably more efficient in a zero-gravity environment. As an article at Interesting Engineering pointed out, the crystallization had been completed months before. The delays were as a result of the FAA, which held off on approving the satellite’s re-entry for several months.

Now that one mission is complete, there’s an obvious follow-up: will there be more drug production moved into orbit in the coming years? As Brian Gormley of the Wall Street Journal reports, Varda is now making a pitch to other drugmakers that their approach is the way to go — including releasing new research that makes that case.

Josh Wolfe, co-founder of Lux Capital, which has invested in Varda, made the case for why drugmakers should consider the orbital approach. “Ideally, it is lowering the cost of very expensive, lifesaving drugs,” Wolfe told the Wall Street Journal.

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The Wall Street Journal reports that the Ritonavir that returned to Earth last month is currently being analyzed — and that Varda currently has two more launches scheduled for this year, and three on deck for 2025. Will the efficiencies of drug production in zero gravity prove more appealing than the cost of getting materials into a zero-gravity environment? It’s a big question — and it could have a huge effect on how drugs are produced.

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