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Pharma on Mars: Getting Drugs Ready for Deep Space Travel

Posted on November 1st, 2017 by in Pharma R&D

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When we think of the challenges of space travel, we tend to focus on the technological aspects involving the difficulty of launch and landing, the structural integrity of the spacecraft and the basic safety of the astronauts.

The current ideas around space travel, though, aren’t based on just getting people to the moon. In fact, last year, then-president Obama talked of a goal to send humans to Mars and back by the 2030s—which isn’t that long from now when you consider what a big feat this would be.

But sending humans on lengthy missions in space requires understanding the long-term effects that it can have on their health, including knowing how effective pharmaceuticals are in space. Yes, that’s right, even astronauts get stuffy noses, motion sickness and struggle to fall asleep—all issues that can be helped by medication. But how well do drugs actually work outside of the planet Earth? The assumption has so far been that they work the same, but that assumption hasn’t been tested through systematic investigation.

As the paper “Drugs in space: Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics in astronauts” explains, we do already know that spaceflight alters human physiology, impacting nearly every organ in the body. Changes in the gastrointestinal tract and metabolic enzymes, muscle and bone loss, fluid shifts and immune system problems can occur in space, and these issues often necessitate the use of pharmaceuticals. Researchers found that on 94% of all flights, astronauts reported they were taking at least one medication. They might be taking medicines for allergies, sinus congestion, pain or a number of other maladies.

The physiological changes that astronauts experience may also alter the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of their medications. Yet there is really very little data available and very few studies on the safety and efficacy of medicines used during spaceflight. The authors of the paper do touch on a few that have been done, including both inflight and ground-based studies in simulated microgravity, as well as an International Space Station study that looked at the stability of drugs stored in space. 

But, overall, this is an area that is woefully under-researched. As the idea of deep space travel comes closer to reality, it is important that scientists learn much more about how effective and safe medications of all kinds are when used in space. Check out the paper “Drugs in space” now to find out more.

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All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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