Proteins in space: taking our research to the final frontier

Merck Research Laboratories scientist Paul Reichert works with the International Space Station to drive innovation

June 29, 2022

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Merck Research Laboratories (MRL) is known for pushing the frontiers of science with its cutting-edge research. And MRL scientist Paul Reichert has taken that concept even further — to space!

Reichert was one of the first scientists in the pharmaceutical industry to propose studying protein crystallization under microgravity conditions, and his work continues today.

“We regularly use crystallization processes for our small molecule and small protein therapeutics. Our goal with these experiments is to identify crystallization processes for biologics for enhanced and simpler drug delivery,” explained Reichert.

Experimental conditions in microgravity are unique because without the force of Earth’s gravity, solutions have reduced convection currents, reduced sedimentation and reduced molecular motion, leading to higher-order crystals with higher purity and more uniform suspensions. Researchers have been able to apply this knowledge ‘on the ground’ by manipulating key variables to mimic those in microgravity, such as using rotational mixers to reduce sedimentation.

Paul Reichert joins April Spinale and Raymond Polniak of CASIS to inspect the experiment

Paul Reichert (L) joins April Spinale and Raymond Polniak of the ISS National Laboratory, managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS), to inspect the experiment

The latest MRL experiment blasted off to the International Space Station in December with astronaut Marc Vande Hei completing the experiment designed to study the effects of purity, mixing, diffusion and temperature on crystallization. Simultaneously, back on Earth, a research team was doing a control experiment in a laboratory for comparison. Reichert is now working alongside other MRL scientists to analyze and compare the results of the experiment run in space against the ground experiment done under the same conditions with gravity.

Paul Reichert at the international space station

“I feel so fortunate to have been able to push the frontiers of science with amazing scientists here at Merck and at the ISS National Laboratory. It’s been the highlight of my career.”

  • Paul Reichert
    Associate principal scientist, structural chemistry