Israeli Milk-Carton-Sized Nano-Satellite to Perform Medical Experiments in Space

He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis15:5)

A nano-satellite the size of a milk carton is due to be launched into space on Wednesday (weather permitting) – a joint project of Israel’s and Italy’s space agencies – to perform four autonomous medical and scientific experiments without an astronaut having to carry them out.

It will be the first time such an accomplishment is possible in microgravity (virtual weightlessness); instead of an astronaut in the European Space Station performing the experiments, they can be done by doctors and scientists in their hospital or university labs on Earth. Thus, the project will make history.

Called DIDO-3 and built by the Israeli company Space Pharma, the tiny satellite is due to be launched from the European space launch site in French Guiana. The biotechnology company, founded by Yossi Yamin in 2012, has offices in Israel, Switzerland and the US. Focused on using virtual weightlessness for research and development, it has developed end-to-end miniaturized lab systems, equipped with sensors and readers capable of working on different microgravity platforms.

Its mission, said Yamin, is to become a world leader in providing simplified and valuable services and solutions for research. Microgravity is useful for research in the fields of pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, material/chemical science and nutrition, providing companies and researchers with the ability to accelerate discovery processes for new drugs and vaccines, develop new crystals and materials and speed up the study of human genome and origin of diseases. 

The potential scientific, technological and commercial benefits of microgravity research to humankind are substantial, he continued, and will revolutionize traditional Earth-bound processing methods. 

Living in zero gravity may be not be so comfortable for humans, but it turns out it’s a great environment for bacteria. It grows faster and often stronger without the force of gravity weighing it down. Pharmaceutical companies prefer the idea of testing in space, because it allows them to see how bacteria reacts in a shorter time frame. But unfortunately, it’s very expensive to run experiments in space. By sending autonomous mini-labs into space, SpacePharma makes this possible at an affordable price. 

The launch event will be broadcast live on the Israel Space Agency’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/IsraelSpaceAgency) and Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/IsraelMOST).

The four experiments, in the fields of medicine, biology and chemistry, will provide new and breakthrough information on diseases and their prevention.

The experiments were designed by four teams of scientists in both countries, and each Israeli and Italian researcher collaborated in each experiment. The Israeli institutions participating in the experiments are the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv..

The Israeli launch ceremony will be attended by the the minister and the director-general of Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry, the Italian ambassador to Israel, the director of the Israeli Space Agency, the director-general of Sheba Medical Center and the chief operating officer of SpacePharma.  

A team from the chemistry department at the University of Bologna will collaborate with a team at the Technion’s Faculty of Science and Engineering of Materials to investigate the effectiveness of antimicrobial materials under conditions of gravity. This study is part of an effort to prevent infections in hospitals and infections carried on different surfaces. 

The second experiment brings together Technion researchers with a colleague from the University of Rome who will study how drugs are absorbed under microgravity by albumin – an important protein found in the blood that transmits various molecules. 

  1. Biologists at the University of Tor-Vergata in Rome and a leading chemist at the Hebrew University will investigate the “folding” of DNA molecules. This phenomenon, associated with the cell division and the protection of the genetic cargo from harm, is aimed at studying aging processes and to prevent cancers.

A public health expert at University in Naples Federico II and a professor at Sheba Medical Center will study how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance under conditions of gravity and in the extreme environment of space; the experiment is aimed at the development of new drugs and approaches to prevent the antibiotic resistance by bacteria. 

The results of the trials, which are due in the coming weeks, will be broadcast to the Spice-Pharma ground station in Switzerland and be forwarded to researchers in Israel. The nanosatellite will pass six times a day above the ground station and transmit data to Earth. The data will be analyzed in laboratories in Israel and Italy and based on this information, orders will be sent to continue the space experiment in an interactive and real-time manner. At the same time, the researchers will perform the experiments on the same system on the ground. The differences between the trials under the different conditions will provide unique information that may lead to breakthroughs.