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Israel’s first ‘space medicine’ university course gets underway in Jerusalem

Professor Sara Eyal, clinical pharmacist who studies effects of microgravity on human biology, leads first-of-its-kind lecture series

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Tech Israel editor and reporter.

A view of Earth from the ISS. (Elen11 via iStock by Getty Images)
A view of Earth from the ISS. (Elen11 via iStock by Getty Images)

An Israeli professor of nanoscience and nanotechnology is launching Israel’s first university course for drug development research in space, or “space medicine,” as Professor Sara Eyal of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Pharmacy calls it.

The semester-long, weekly course began on Tuesday, drawing up to 40 students from different disciplines such as medicine, pharmacy, nursing, and biology.

Eyal, a clinical pharmacist who focuses on microgravity and how it affects human biology, is head of the university’s Space Lab, where researchers conduct various experiments in space conditions using a Random Positioning Machine (RPM). The machine rotates biological samples along two independent axes to change their orientation and simulate microgravity.

The lab aims to partner with other universities and companies through the Hebrew University’s tech transfer company Yissum.

The Space Lab recently hosted research into whether an Israeli cancer drug in space-like conditions could prove more effective in treating cancer patients. The research was led by Professor Yehezkel Bernholtz of the Hebrew University, an expert in biochemistry, nanotechnology, and drug development, and the inventor of Doxil, which became the first nano-drug to receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, back in 1995.

Following experiments in the lab, Bernholtz, the founder of Ayana Pharma, designed an experiment in which the drug interacts with tumor cells on the International Space Station (ISS) and packaged it in a container the size of two cigarette boxes. It was blasted into space in early January on a SpaceX Falcon 9, as part of a smart laboratory developed by Israeli company SpacePharma, and recently arrived back on 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 hugely beneficial for understanding drug targets.

Israeli Professor Sara Eyal has launched Israel’s first ‘space medicine’ course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

“We know, for example, that prolonged stays in microgravity are associated with accelerated processes of aging and of diseases. Experiments in space can give us possible new drug targets where we can study how to reverse these processes,” she explained.

As an example, Eyal pointed to NASA-backed microgravity research into loss of bone density, using animal models, that contributed to the development of osteoporosis drug targets back on Earth.

The professor explained that scientists study the structure of proteins to better design drugs and therapeutics and protein crystals formed in microgravity are “more uniform and more complete in space conditions, as the Earth’s gravity interferes more.” These higher-quality crystals help improve structure determination and can inform researchers’ understanding of how proteins function as well as their involvement in disease development.

Following a series of crystallization experiments on board the ISS, researchers from German drugmaker Merck were able to produce highly uniform, stable concentrated crystals from an active pharmaceutical agent in an immuno-oncology drug, later translating these processes for Earth-based drug research.

NASA astronaut Thomas Pesquet removes the Protein Crystallization Facility hardware from the incubator on the ISS for Merck’s research, 2019. (Courtesy: NASA)

Eyal said she wanted to open this world of possibilities for university students whom she said can be “more open and creative.”

Students in the course will sit through 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 “will have to contribute to humanity in some way. They can involve any micro-organism or creature no larger than an insect; so no mammals.”

She said she doesn’t really know what to expect from the students but actively “enjoys their creative thinking and their ability to come up with totally new ideas.”

“I’m really excited about the course,” Eyal shared. “The first class will look at hazards in space such as moondust and radiation,” after which they will study space flight history.

The course offers “a whole new realm” for the study of human biology, said Eyal.

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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