A group of elementary school students in Canada amazed NASA by discovering that the drug Epipen could become toxic in space.
The students, who are part of the Gifted Learners Program (PGL) at the St. Brother Andre School in Ottawa, have been studying the effects of cosmic radiation on epinephrine. Epinephrine is an active ingredient in the emergency medication Epipen that patients use during severe allergic reactions.
NASA selected the students’ experiment as part of its “Cube in Space” program, which is specifically designed for school children. Live Science reports that the 9 to 12-year-old students designed an experiment in which small cubes containing samples of epinephrine were sent to the edge of space via balloon or rocket.
When the samples returned to Earth, researchers at the Jeremy Spectroscopy Mass Center at the University of Ottawa tested them and found that only 87% of pure epinephrine was present, while 13% had been converted to highly toxic derivatives of benzoic acid.
Cosmic radiation is composed of highly energetic particles that are released by stars, including the Sun. The Earth’s atmosphere largely protects life on Earth from these radiations, but astronauts who are exposed to cosmic rays for extended periods face significant health risks, including radiation sickness, an increased risk of cancer, and other diseases.
Paul Mayer, the head of the Chemistry and Molecular Bioscience department at the University of Ottawa, said that cosmic radiation also has a significant effect on chemical substances such as epinephrine. Mayer said, “Samples showed signs of epinephrine reaction and decomposition after exposure to cosmic radiation. In fact, after the event of exposure to cosmic radiation, epinephrine did not exist in the samples of the epipen solution.” This result raises questions about the effectiveness of epipen for space environments, and PGL students are working on these questions.
While benzoic acid naturally exists in some plants such as cranberries, plums, and cinnamon and is often used as a food preservative, the National Institute of Health says this colorless compound can be dangerous for health when consumed in high doses.
Students are designing a capsule to protect epipen in space. They will go to the Langley Research Center in Virginia in June to present their findings to NASA.