Microgravity protein crystallization for drug development: a bold example of public sector entrepreneurship
A basic mission of NASA is to use the United States’ segment of the International Space Station (ISS), designated a national laboratory, to facilitate the growth of a commercial marketplace in low Earth orbit for scientific research, technology development, observation and communications. Protein crystallization research has long been promoted as a promising commercial application of the ISS for drug development. In this paper we examine the case for microgravity protein crystallization under different private and public investment scenarios. The analysis suggests that sustaining investment is unlikely to come from individual companies alone. Public and private investment must be combined and managed to overcome a number of challenges including the need to integrate microgravity crystallization into the complex system of technologies involved in structure-based drug design. Multiple risks related to transportation costs/frequency, risk for cargo and research crew, and uncertainty about the longevity of the ISS complicate the calculus.