Study suggests that medicines do not degrade faster in space

The study made use of medicines returned from the International Space Station (ISS), pictured here from the space shuttle Atlantis in November 2009(Credit: NASA)

A new study conducted by Baylor College of Medicine in the US has provided the first evidence that medicines aren't negatively affected by spending time in space. The research looked at samples returned from the International Space Station (ISS), and represents the first step in a new avenue of study.

Last month, NASA set out a concise road map for a manned mission to Mars – an exceptionally important and hugely exciting endeavour, and one that requires a monumental degree of planning. If the mission is to become a reality, there's a huge amount of research that needs to be conducted to ensure everything goes smoothly, and it's not all headline studies. Baylor College's new work looks at a small, but potentially life saving question – that of whether keeping medicines in space impacts their safety.

While the temperature and humidity observed aboard the ISS would be considered optimum for drug storage back on Earth, prior to this study, we've never observed whether factors unique to spaceflight, namely elevated radiation levels and microgravity, have an impact on medication.

To answer that question, a team of researchers from the Center for Space Medicine and Department of Pharmacology at Baylor College of Medicine analyzed a sample of nine medicines – including routine drugs such as sleeping pills, pain relievers and antihistamines – returned to Earth after residing aboard the space station for 550 days.

Looking at the conditions of the different pills and comparing them to the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) guidelines, the researchers found that four of the nine medicines were still viable for use a full eight months after hitting their expiration date, while one other drug was safe five months past expiration. Three other medications were three months from hitting expiration, and like the other samples, met the USP guidelines. Only one drug – a sleeping aid – failed to meet the requirements, but it was a full 11 months past its stated expiration date.

Overall, this strongly suggests that the conditions aboard the ISS do not have a negative impact on the degradation of medication, with the results falling in line with what would be expected had the drugs been stored back on Earth. However, given the small scale, opportunistic nature of the investigation, further study will be required to verify the finding.

If the information is to benefit future long-term missions, most notably NASA's planned trip to Mars, a more detailed investigation will be necessary, with data being collected throughout the degradation process, not just at the conclusion of the study.

The researchers presented the findings of their study in The American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists Journal.

Source: AAPS

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