Varda Hopes New Research Draws More Drugmakers to Space Factories

A Varda Space industries space capsule landing in the Utah desert in February.
A Varda Space industries space capsule landing in the Utah desert in February.

Summary

Varda Space Industries says it has a way to create better medicines: use microgravity.

Varda Space Industries says it has a way to create better medicines: use microgravity.

The startup recently recovered a capsule it launched into space last year to test its ability to produce crystals in orbit used to manufacture medications. Now, Varda seeks to convince more drugmakers that sending medicines to space on its missions will give them an edge. The company has just published research in the scientific journal Crystal Growth & Design to help make its case to prospective clients.

Researchers have long used microgravity, or near-weightlessness, in space to improve crystal formation. They have found, for example, crystals form in space with better structures, better orientations of molecules and fewer imperfections, according to Anne Wilson, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Butler University who has published research on microgravity crystallization and who isn’t involved with Varda.

“The impact of microgravity seems to be very effective at getting pure crystalline materials that have unique properties," Wilson said.

In drug development, improved crystallization could enable more potent medicines at lower doses, reducing treatment costs, said Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner of Varda investor Lux Capital.

“Ideally, it is lowering the cost of very expensive, lifesaving drugs," Wolfe said.

Varda formed in late 2020 to create unmanned space capsules containing factories to send into orbit and capitalize on reusable rockets, which have cut the costs of working in space.

The company launched its first capsule last June. It returned to Earth in February after producing crystals of the HIV medicine ritonavir. Varda is analyzing the results, said Chief Science Officer Adrian Radocea.

The mission was a test case. Varda is now preparing for flights it expects will have drugs from initial clients. Varda plans two launches this year, including one in June or July aboard a SpaceX rocket, and three in 2025, according to Delian Asparouhov, co-founder, president and chairman of the company.

Varda has signed contracts with pharmaceutical companies for its flights this year, next year and beyond, Asparouhov said, adding the company plans to disclose several initial customers ahead of a planned launch in summer.

Varda last week published a paper in Crystal Growth & Design that could help it sway additional customers. The company says it can screen small-molecule drugs to determine which are most likely to benefit from crystallization in space.

Research on the process has typically compared microgravity with gravity on Earth, Radocea said. Since gravity isn’t the only difference between conditions in space and on Earth, there might be other factors accounting for observed differences, Radocea said.

In the research study for Crystal Growth & Design, Varda used a room-size centrifuge at its El Segundo, Calif., headquarters to subject l-histidine—an amino acid frequently used to study crystallization—to increasing gravitational forces, up to 5G, to study their effect on crystallization.

Varda will argue to prospective clients that if a drug’s properties are suboptimal on Earth, and worsen when subjected to increasing gravitational forces, researchers can be confident the compound is sensitive to changes in gravity. They also can infer that reducing gravitational forces could improve the drug’s properties.

“If you can observe a trend it’s much easier to convince a scientific audience," Radocea said.

Corin Wagen, founder and chief executive of Rowan Scientific, a Boston-based developer of computational tools for pharmaceutical companies, said microgravity provides the controlled environment researchers seek for crystallization. Varda’s challenge will be to show that drugmakers gain enough of an advantage to justify the cost and risks of sending compounds into space, he said.

“You need big results to justify a big extra hassle," Wagen said.

Asparouhov said Varda is finding some drugmakers have had trouble crystallizing compounds and don’t see a path forward without microgravity, adding that in these cases, seed crystals made in space could be used to produce drugs on Earth.

Write to Brian Gormley at brian.gormley@wsj.com

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