Health

Researchers test remotely operated implantable drug delivery devices on the ISS


From Novartis to Lamborghini, Alessandro Grattoni and the Houston Methodist Research Institute have partnered with big names to leverage the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory for space-based research and technology development with important benefits back on Earth.

Grattoni, professor and chair of the Department of Nanomedicine at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, currently leads a team developing the next generation of implantable drug delivery systems for the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. Their latest investigation launches to the ISS on SpaceX’s 23rd Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission. This time, they will be testing an advanced implantable drug delivery device that can be remotely operated, which allows for the controlled distribution of a drug inside the body on demand.

To validate the new technology, the team will make use of a new autonomous research platform called the Faraday Research Facility developed by ProXopS, LLC, an ISS National Lab Commercial Service Provider. If the technology demonstration is successful, the remotely operated device could open new doors for telemedicine and personalized therapeutic treatments on Earth and provide new capabilities for medical research in space.

Grattoni’s technology has evolved over several years and multiple spaceflights. An initial microgravity experiment in 2016 that modeled the diffusion of fluids through nanochannels developed into a passively operated, prototype drug delivery implant. Pharmaceutical giant Novartis later collaborated with Grattoni’s team to test this system in a mouse model onboard the ISS. Based on the team’s success, a third spaceflight experiment in 2019 in partnership with supercar manufacturer Automobili Lamborghini tested carbon fiber composites for aerospace applications. These results may also one day help to identify new advanced materials for biomedical devices.

Implantable drug delivery systems are designed to automatically deliver precise doses of medication at targeted delivery sites in a patient’s body. While previous versions of Grattoni’s system operated passively-;the initial device utilized specially calibrated nanochannel membranes to modulate the diffusion rate-;the latest version features a remote control that can be operated through an application installed on a smartphone or laptop. This advance provides the ability to remotely stop and start the flow of medication and control the precise dosage on command.

Having an implant that allows you to modulate drug release and change drug-release profiles over time really opens up a spectrum of opportunities that goes from clinical developments to potentially expanded resources for research and fundamental science.”


Alessandro Grattoni, Professor and Chair, Department of Nanomedicine, Houston Methodist Research Institute

Among the hopeful uses of the new device is to streamline rodent research onboard the ISS. The system could allow more complex drug regimens that would not be feasible even with extensive crew interaction, while also reducing stress on animals, Grattoni said.

Grattoni’s team will use the new Faraday Research Facility to validate the device’s remote capabilities on station. The autonomous research platform will house a suite of the implantable devices, stored for test operation in sealed saline tubes, and will allow the team to remotely put the units through their paces from the ground via the station’s internet connection. If successful, a future spaceflight experiment could validate operation of the system in rodents on station.

The experiment will double as a test for the ProXopS platform. With a capacity for up to 12 remotely operated “microlab” investigations, the Faraday Research Facility could soon provide a customizable and cost-effective way to transport, command, control, and return spaceflight investigations.

“We are excited to support this mission with the Faraday Research Platform. Grattoni’s comprehensive research in drug delivery systems has a lot of promise that will ultimately improve the quality of life on our planet and beyond,” said ProXopS managing partner Chad Brinkley.

Grattoni’s remote implantable system has potential for telemedicine on Earth, where it could help patients who lack easy access to medical clinics, and for future astronauts on long-term space exploration missions. It also could someday help treat diseases that respond better to therapeutics administered at certain times of the day, like hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, and sleep disorders.

“Whatever we do on the research level, we’re doing it with the intention of making good use of it in a clinical setting,” Grattoni said. “This really is an enabling technology platform for a broad series of experiments, from testing new therapeutics to exploring biological effects of different compounds.”

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