Israel’s first ‘space medicine’ university course kicks off in Jerusalem
An Israeli professor of nanoscience and nanotechnology launches Israel’s first university course for research on drug development in space, or “space medicine”, as Professor Sara Eyal of the School of Pharmacy calls it. the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The semester-long weekly course began on Tuesday, attracting up to 40 students from different disciplines such as medicine, pharmacy, nursing and biology.
Eyal, a clinical pharmacist who focuses on microgravity and its effects on human biology, heads the university’s Space Lab, where researchers conduct various experiments in space conditions using a random positioning (RPM). The machine rotates biological samples along two independent axes to change their orientation and simulate microgravity.
The lab aims to establish partnerships with other universities and companies through the Hebrew University Technology Transfer Company Yessum.
The Space Lab recently organized research to find out if an Israeli cancer drug in space-like conditions might prove more effective in treating cancer patients. The research was led by Hebrew University professor Yehezkel Bernholtz, an expert in biochemistry, nanotechnology and drug development, and the inventor of Doxil, which became the first nano-medicine to receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, back in 1995.
Following laboratory experiments, Bernholtz, the founder of Ayana Pharma, designed an experiment in which the drug interacted with tumor cells on the International Space Station (ISS) and packaged it in a container the size of two boxes of cigarettes. It was blasted into space in early January on a SpaceX Falcon 9, as part of a smart lab developed by Israeli company SpacePharma, and recently returned to Earth where Bernholtz is studying the results.
Eyal told The Times of Israel in a phone interview ahead of International Women’s Day that microgravity research is extremely beneficial for understanding drug targets.
“We know, for example, that prolonged stays in microgravity are associated with accelerated aging and disease processes. Experiments in space can give us new possible drug targets where we can study how to reverse these processes,” she explained.
For example, Eyal pointed out NASA-supported microgravity research in bone density loss, using animal models, which have contributed to the development of drug targets for osteoporosis on Earth.
The professor explained that scientists study the structure of proteins to better design drugs and therapies and that protein crystals formed in microgravity are “more uniform and complete in space conditions because Earth’s gravity interferes more”. These higher quality crystals help improve structure determination and can shed light on researchers’ understanding of how proteins function as well as their involvement in disease development.
Following a series of crystallization experiments aboard the ISS, researchers from German drugmaker Merck were able to produce highly uniform and stable concentrated crystals from active pharmaceutical agent in immuno-oncology drug, later translating these processes for Earth-based drug research.
Eyal said she wants to open up this world of possibilities to university students who she says can be “more open and creative.”
Students on the course will attend a series of lectures on space and space conditions, after which they will have to design and plan their own microgravity experiments for research in space.
The experiments will delve into a whole new realm, Eyal said, and “must contribute to humanity in some way. They can involve any microorganism or creature no larger than an insect. so no mammals.
She said she wasn’t sure what to expect from the students, but she “actively enjoyed their creative thinking and their ability to come up with totally new ideas.”
“I’m really excited about the course,” Eyal said. “The first class will look at dangers in space such as moon dust and radiation,” after which they will study the history of spaceflight.
The course offers “a whole new area” for the study of human biology, Eyal said.
Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.