Need a medication here on Earth? No problem – simply visit your local chemists or look in your medicine cabinet at home where simple medications such as pain-killers or antibiotics, if stored correctly, have a shelf life of up to a couple of years and retain most of their potency in that time. However, astronauts in Space it would seem might not be quite so lucky.
Longer duration Space travel, such as to Mars, may require astronauts to spend up to 2 years on board a space craft, and so the need to take greater volumes of medication will be required. Little is currently know in relation to the potential effects that the Space environment can have on these – an environment subject to such factors as microgravity, radiation, flight vibration, as well as variations in temperature and humidity.
Consequently, a study was conducted involving flying four boxes of drugs, each containing 35 medications up to the International Space Station (ISS). In accordance with good scientific practice, four identical boxes were also kept under controlled conditions at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, USA, to act as a control for comparison. The four boxes from the ISS were returned one by one, back to Earth after varying lengths of time, with one box returning after just 13 days and the last box returning after 28 months on the ISS.
The medications were analysed to see how they compared to the control kits and it was found that; less than third of the medications kept in Space met US requirements for levels of active ingredients; the longer the kits were in Space, the fewer the number of formulations that retained acceptable potency levels.
The authors conclude that "It is important to characterize space-specific degradation products and toxicity limits using ground-based analogue environments of space that include proton and heavy ion radiation, vibration and multiple gravity conditions. This information can facilitate research for the development of space-hardy pharmaceuticals and packaging technologies."