Elementary school students in Canada recently schooled NASA scientists when they discovered that life-saving EpiPens can turn poisonous when launched into space.
Students from St. Brother André School's Program for Gifted Learners (PGL) in Ottawa were studying the effects of cosmic radiation on epinephrine, the active ingredient found in EpiPens, an emergency treatment given during severe allergic reactions. NASA selected the students' experiment to be part of Cubes in Space (opens in new tab), its global STEM program geared specifically to school-age kids.
For the program, the 9- to 12-year-old students designed an experiment in which epinephrine samples were placed into tiny cubes and sent to the edge of space via either a high-altitude balloon or a rocket. Once back on Earth, researchers from the John L. Holmes Mass Spectrometry Facility at the University of Ottawa tested the samples and found that only 87% contained pure epinephrine, while the other 13% had been "transformed into extremely poisonous benzoic acid derivatives," according to a University of Ottawa statement (opens in new tab).
Cosmic radiation is made of extremely high-energy particles released by stars, including Earth's sun. Our planet's atmosphere largely protects life on Earth from this radiation, but astronauts exposed to cosmic rays for a prolonged period of time face significant health risks, including radiation sickness and increased lifetime risk for cancer and other diseases, according to NASA (opens in new tab).
Related: Man almost dies from an allergic reaction to cold air
Cosmic radiation also shows a clear impact on chemicals like epinephrine, Paul Mayer (opens in new tab), a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Ottawa, said in the statement.
"The 'after' samples showed signs that the epinephrine reacted and decomposed," Mayer said. "In fact, no epinephrine was found in the 'after' EpiPen solution samples. This result raises questions about the efficacy of an EpiPen for outer space applications and these questions are now starting to be addressed by the kids in the PGL program."
While benzoic acid is naturally occurring in certain plants (opens in new tab), including cranberries, plums and cinnamon, and is often used as a food preservative, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (opens in new tab) classifies the colorless compound as a "health hazard" when consumed at high dosages.
The students are now designing a capsule to protect EpiPens while in space. In June they will travel to the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to present their findings to NASA.
Our program provides the opportunity for students, ages 11-18, the opportunity to engage in science and research by designing and proposing experiments to the Cubes in Space program. If the experiment concepts are selected, students build their experiments to find inside a ~4x4x4 cm plastic container. These experiments are launched on a sounding rocket from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Experiments are also launched to near space on a large scale, high altitude balloon from NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility - Ft. Sumner, New Mexico location.
Educators deliver the program and teach students about suborbital science science and engineering concepts through an integrative STEAM-learning approach.
We are excited to fly this experiment again this summer for the students to repeat the testing to determine if they can receive repeatable results.
Visit www.cubesinspace.com to learn more and to also see what other research students in our program conduct.
The Cubes in Space program is not currently accepting educator registration. However, October 2023 is the beginning of the 10th year of our program and when we accept new registrations.
We are tremendously appreciative of NASA's Sounding Rocket Program Office and NASA's Balloon Program Office for their support in providing students the opportunities to conduct real scientific research and engineering.
"...only 87% contained pure epinephrine."
Then further down:
"...no epinephrine was found in the 'after' EpiPen solution samples."
I must be missing something?
Don't get me wrong. I think this is really cool and I think it's an awesome program. I wish I could have been a part of something like this when I was that age.
It seems that the person writing this article didn't pay very close attention and is doing an injustice to this program and these students, as we are all focusing on the errors in the the article versus the achievement and other interesting factors of what these students are learning.
Another question that is noticed was that they stated that the cubes are 4x4 inch cubes, and EpiPens range from 5 and 1/2 to 6 inches depending on the manufacturer and the length of the needle.
So I'm guessing they they actually just tested epinephrine and not EpiPens. Also, what is the material that these boxes are made of? Does it block cosmic radiation? If they didn't test actual EpiPens than they can account for how much the EpiPen casing, springs, and mechanics itself would protect the medication if at all.
I will say this, that is this is a great program and I genuinely wish I could have been part of something like this when I was in grade school..