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Drugs in Orbit: One Startup’s Big Idea for Microgravity

Varda Space Industries has built a lab to make novel pharmaceuticals in a space capsule, then drop them into the Utah desert.

Engineers at Varda’s headquarters in El Segundo, California.

Engineers at Varda’s headquarters in El Segundo, California.

Photographer: Spencer Lowell for Bloomberg Businessweek

One of the less intuitive benefits of the new Space Age could be breakthroughs in drug development. With the pressures of gravity stripped away, atoms and molecules behave differently, and researchers have long discussed making medicines and chemicals in low-Earth orbit.

Large pharmaceutical companies have been carrying out a limited number of these experiments for years. Merck & Co. used the International Space Station to refine the recipe for its cancer treatment Keytruda—its bestselling product, with more than $20 billion in annual sales. But the cost of working on the ISS is enormous, and its astronauts are often reluctant to make time in their schedule to handle potentially dangerous chemicals in such a confined space.