Potential

In general, efforts to find commercial application from manned space activity have had limited success so far. Space activity is almost entirely dedicated to government missions, thus dominated by government procedures and funding. The ISS is usually justified by appealing to objectives other than its furtherance of commercial activity. These objectives include scientific research, national prestige, and establishing a platform for further exploration of the solar system. But surely the expenditure of more than $ 15 billion for the construction of the ISS should also yield commercial payoffs. As of today, the most promising areas of opportunity for space commercialization include crystal growth and biomedical research efforts.

Biotechnology is the application of biological research techniques to the development and manufacture of products which improve human health, animal health, and agriculture. One important question is what role commercial users and industry might play in using the biotechnology research performed in microgravity?

It is believed that commercial users of a macromolecular crystal growth facility on the ISS would come almost exclusively from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, with perhaps an occasional user from a contract research organization or an instrument manufacturer. Worldwide there are currently more than 100 companies with research programs in macromolecular crystallography. These industrial organizations employ approximately 500 scientists and technicians with all levels of expertise in crystallography. Most are located in countries that already participate in development of the ISS.

All of these companies employ crystallographers to aid in the design of biologically active molecules for use in human and animal health care or agriculture for the production of food and fiber. Industrial research programs in macromolecular crystallography fall within two broad categories. In structure-based drug design, the three-dimensional structure of a target macromolecule is determined to help in the design of a compound, most often a small molecule, which will bind tightly and selectively to the target, modifying its activity. In macromolecular engineering, the structure of a macromolecule is determined in order to guide research aimed at changing its structure. The goal is to alter its properties in some desirable way, with the final commercial product being the mutant macromolecule itself.

Figure 8-12. Dr. Albert Sacco flew as a Payload Specialist operating his own zeolite aystal growth experiment onboard STS-73 in 1995. On this photograph, he is inspecting a aystal in a cylindrical autoclave on the middeck of Space Shuttle Columbia. Photo courtesy of NASA.

In 2000, a study by the National Research Council revealed that, although many pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies had participated in the microgravity crystallization research, not one had yet committed substantial financial resources to the program. The study concluded that "this is likely to remain the case until the benefits of microgravity can be convincingly documented by basic researchers and until facilities in space can handle greatly increased numbers of samples in a much more user friendly manner".

In other words, "We need a home run to get more interest in space commercialization".

Figure 8-12. Dr. Albert Sacco flew as a Payload Specialist operating his own zeolite aystal growth experiment onboard STS-73 in 1995. On this photograph, he is inspecting a aystal in a cylindrical autoclave on the middeck of Space Shuttle Columbia. Photo courtesy of NASA.

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