The launch of Space Shuttle Discovery STS-128 scheduled for the last week of August could herald a new age in vaccine research, thanks to a special payload that will test the effects of microgravity on new medicines.

Alongside equipment and supplies headed for the International Space Station, the shuttle will also carry a unique vaccine processing platform, developed by US company Astrogenetix, the first commercial biotechnology company to use the unique microgravity environment of space to develop novel therapeutic products.

Aboard this mission, the company specifically hopes to find new therapeutic agents and vaccine candidates for Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella microbes by testing the unique interactions in biological systems caused by microgravity.

This, however, is not the company’s first space mission. Since inception in 2008, the biotech company has flown on five shuttle missions thanks to its status as a National Lab Pathfinder, a designation that will also ensure its presence on all future shuttle missions.

Preliminary findings from a microgravity-based virulence survey aboard Shuttle Discovery (STS-119) launched on 15 March 2009 showed that the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other microbes exhibit altered phenotypical responses during spaceflight.

After the mission, Astrotech, Astrogenetix’s parent company, chief executive officer and chairman of the board Thomas B Pickens III said that the survey flights demonstrated that microgravity truly offers a unique platform for drug discovery and development.

“We are pleased with the outcome of the survey flight and are tremendously excited with the opportunities for the development of life-saving biomedicines in space,” Pickens said.

After the flight, samples will be examined back on earth to establish the effects of microgravity in discovering drug candidates and results will be added to Astrogenetix’s biomarker research database.