NASA and SpaceX's next mission to deliver more than Christmas cheer to Astronauts

SpaceX's Dragon capsule aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on a previous ISS mission.
The mission takes off before Christmas with scientific studies onboard. Photo credit: Getty Images

The next SpaceX and NASA flight to the International Space Station (ISS) has been scheduled to launch just before Christmas, but it has the potential to deliver more than just presents for the astronauts on board.

The resupply mission lifts off from the Kennedy Space Centre on Wednesday December 22, NZ time, with the Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Onboard the Dragon will be food and supplies for the orbiting crew - but also two new scientific investigations for the crew to undertake.

The first is a protein crystal growth study that could improve the delivery of cancer treatment drugs.

Keytruda, an anti-cancer drug which is partly funded to treat some cancers in Aotearoa, is the drug that's being used in the study.

The hope is that the microgravity conditions on board the ISS will help to identify the key variables that determine crystal growth in pembrolizumab, the active ingredient in the drug.

"The growth of large numbers of crystals of uniform size may help to widen drug delivery options to patients," NASA said.

"Many therapies currently require intravenous infusion, which requires a patient to take time away from work or school and is expensive due to medical facility and personnel requirements.

"High concentration uniform crystalline suspensions are suitable for injectable formulations that a patient could receive at a doctor’s office or for delivery at home. These options improve patient safety and improve quality of life for the patient and caregivers."

A similar investigation had shown crystals were less viscous and more uniform compared to when grown on Earth, with the results already applied to the production of crystalline suspensions by Merck, the makers of Keytruda.

The second experiment is a handheld bioprinter that could be used to print human tissue directly onto wounds for faster healing. That could bring benefits both in space and on terra firma.

Bioprinting is essentially 3D printing but using cells, molecules and other biomaterials to build up a structure.

The study will test the impact microgravity has on the fabrication of different layers of the tissue patch and will be analysed for future applications.

"Altered wound healing in space environments makes the treatment of larger injuries more complicated," NASA wrote.

"The bioprinting of living tissue offers a promising tool to overcome this problem. The body's own cells can be extracted from blood and fatty tissue before the mission, and an immediate treatment could be achieved without any time delay in case of an emergency."

That could also save lives on Earth, with a portable device being able to be taken to stricken patients. And because the cultured cells are taken directly from the patient, they're less likely to be rejected by the immune system.

"Other advantages are the possibilities of treatment and greater flexibility regarding wound size and position," NASA said.

The Dragon spacecraft will arrive at the station just under 24 hours after lifting off and will remain docked with the ISS for about a month before returning to Earth.