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Gravity-Defying Drug Research

PHARMA: Experiments Sent to International Space Station

Local scientists are forging a new frontier with space-age drug research. Biopharma giant Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) Senior Scientist of Protein Homeostasis and Structural Biology’s Barbra “Bee” Pagarigan is working with a team of researchers who are awaiting the results of several experiments that just returned after being sent this May to the International Space Station National Library (ISSNL).

Specifically, she and her San Diego team are working to better understand protein crystallization.

Barbra “Bee” Pagarigan, senior scientist of protein homeostasis and structural biology at Bristol Myers Squibb San Diego holds an International Space Station National Library patch in honor of her protein crystallization experiment conducted on the space station since May. Photo courtesy BMS

“We’re looking to identify the physical conditions that result in large, high-quality crystals in microgravity, which could lead to a better understanding of how to [eventually] make some of our biologics medicines in crystal form,” Pagarigan said.

This most recent batch returning from space is part of a series of experiments that BMS has been working on. “This project began in 2018 when BMS responded to a request for proposals from the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a non-profit organization and manager of the ISSNL. That research led to  our first mission in 2020,” she added.

The team found that the first set of experiments sent to space revealed that the crystals grown in micro-gravity were very similar to those grown on Earth, with some slight differences. “The crystals from the biologics medicine displayed a somewhat more uniform size and shape, which was one of the goals of the study. Additional experiments will build on these findings by studying a larger number of antibodies and will also seek to produce a larger quantity of crystals in space to gain insights into how crystal production could theoretically be scaled up on Earth.”

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The bigger picture question here is whether biologic medicines can be made in crystal form versus other stabilization techniques. Theoretically, BMS believes that crystallized therapeutics may have greater stability and a more concentrated dosing strength.

“For patients, that could be the difference between needing a quick injection or needing to travel for lengthy, periodic infusions,” Pagarigan added. “For medicine makers, the science of protein crystallization could revolutionize how biologics drugs are developed and manufactured, changing everything from the time it takes to bring products to market to the space needed to store them on shelves.”

She’s been studying crystallization at the BMS San Diego site for almost 20 years. It’s no surprise that she’s interested in space research – Pagarigan is also a NASA enthusiast and director for the San Diego Astronomy Association. “After losing friends, family and a beloved dog to many of the diseases BMS targets, I found myself spending many late evenings staring up at the sky, imagining all of them up there together,” she shared. “I always have a telescope with me these days and family, friends and even strangers have taken many ‘tours’ of the solar system through it. Many have remarked how I’ve evolved having spent my career looking at micron-sized particles through a microscope to now staring at galaxies through a telescope.”

BMS is eager to play a role in this research – to date, no therapies have yet been developed as a direct result of a trip to space. The company has 32,000 employees worldwide with more than 500 spread across its four San Diego sites. After more than a century in drug development, the company has launched dozens of medicines, like top-selling drugs Eliquis, Opdivo and Orencia.

BMS’s 2022 revenue was $46.159B and its R&D spending was $9.5B.

Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS)

FOUNDED: 1887
CEO: Giovanni Caforio,  MD
HEADQUARTERS: New Jersey
EMPLOYEES: 32,000 worldwide with 500+ in San Diego
BUSINESS: Biopharma
WEBSITE: bms.com
CONTACT: 800-332-2056
NOTABLE: In the last three years, BMS has launched an unprecedented nine new medicines in the U.S., including the first innovation in the oral treatment of moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis in nearly 10 years.

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