Scientific research aboard the International Space Station: How does this work from an EU and French law perspective?
In 2020, the International Space Station (‘ISS’) celebrated 20 years of continuous human presence aboard its orbiting laboratory.
Many experiments have been conducted throughout the years in the ISS and have helped significantly develop medical knowledge on diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, asthma or even heart problems. Without the interference of gravity, the space station-grown cells develop themselves better than those on Earth and can help test new properties, behaviours and treatments.
As an example, in 2015, physiological, molecular and cognitive experiments were performed on Scott Kelly during his time in the ISS and on Mark Kelly, his twin brother, who stayed on Earth, in order to compare the effects on the human body of a journey in Space. Over ten billion miles of DNA were involved in the Twins Study.
Important medical experiments have also been conducted in space with regards to the effects of gravity on the human body and particularly on bone loss and vision changes.
Some others focused on the evaluation of new molecules of interest, using the unique properties of space as an accelerated but reversible model of ageing including muscle loss, serving R&D programs on earth, for instance by the Amgen pharmaceutical laboratory.
Astronauts aboard the ISS participate in numerous scientific experiments. For example, Thomas Pesquet (the French astronaut currently present in the ISS) uses the Everywear app, designed by MEDES for the CNES (ie, the French National Space Center), which collects his health data on a daily basis (nutrition, symptoms, sleep quality, etc). He also uses the Echo echographer, which can be operated from Earth and helps study his blood circulation. This may benefit isolated populations in a foreseeable future. Experiments, such as the GRIP-GRASP-Perspectives programme, aim to better understand how the neuro system works and may help people suffering from motricity diseases.
In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, experiments in space have proven to be of particular interest. Among others, research on a treatment against Covid-19 is currently being conducted with the Remdesivir drug. This project is led by two Hungarian companies, while Hungary is a Member State of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the EU.
Many questions arise when faced with a scientific experiment aboard the ISS, including that of determining which law shall apply. While there are different international conventions that help understand the legal framework, they do not apply to scientific or even health experiments specifically, which brings us back to applicable law on Earth. Scientific data is used or may be generated during these experiments and leads to wonder how this may be protected by intellectual property while on board the ISS…
with the support of Emma Lucas, Legal Intern
These articles first appeared on the website of the Healthcare and Life Sciences Law Committee of the Legal Practice Division of the International Bar Association, and are reproduced by kind permission of the International Bar Association, London, UK. © International Bar Association.”