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Mass. life science firms offered a ticket to space station

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center on Thursday unveiled a half-million-dollar contest for companies that want to test drugs and devices and do earlier-stage research aboard the International Space Station.

The contest — applications will be accepted from Dec. 1 to April 3 — will award one or more companies a total of $500,000 to run their experiments in the space station’s low-gravity lab.

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In an appearance at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts officials said the project shows the state’s commitment to the life sciences industry is paying off.

“Massachusetts-based companies will have a unique opportunity to access the International Space Station, a one-of-a kind platform for applied- research projects that will help bring new therapies and cures to market,” said Susan Windham-Bannister, head of the Life Sciences Center.

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Three Boston companies were selected this month through MassChallenge, a startup accelerator, to share a similar prize and test their medical technology aboard the space station, where cells and medical devices can behave differently than on Earth.

SQZ Biotech will be testing a chip that uses channels narrower than a human hair to compress cells, then deliver drugs or other substances as they expand.

Novopyxis will test a device called the Droplette that allows for large-molecule drugs to be delivered through the skin.

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CamMed will test a way to improve its Evopump device, a bandage-size drug-delivery pump.

Dan Tani, a former astronaut and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who had worked on the International Space Station and came to Boston for Thursday’s event, said Earth-based scientists have to do extra work to make sure their experiments are “astronaut-proof.”

Although astronauts often come from engineering backgrounds, they can’t be expected to know how to fix an experimental motor or how to culture cells.

“There’s a lot of work [scientists] have to do to massage it and put the procedure together so a fairly skilled and and fairly intelligent person could do it without screwing it up,” Tani said.

“Even though this could be a year’s worth of work for somebody, we could have an hour and a half in the morning to do it.”

The competition is funded by the MLSC and run with the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, a government-established nonprofit that manages the space station’s lab. A CASIS official said the partnership with Massachusetts was the first of its kind in the nation.

“Through Governor Patrick’s investment initiative, Massachusetts has emerged as the global leader in life sciences, making the state a great partner for CASIS in promoting research” on the space station, said Cynthia Bouthot, the director of business development for CASIS.

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Winners of the so-called Galactic Grant Competition will be named in July.

Thursday’s announcement included $50,000 to promote science and technology education initiatives involving the International Space Station in Massachusetts schools.

Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.
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