Ontario kids sent an epipen to space, surprising scientists with results

Published 2023-03-29 05:59

Project raises more questions about medicine effectiveness in space


What happens to medicine in space?

As we send more and more people toward the stars through space tourism and other astronomical projects, it’s an important question to ask.

And thanks to students from an elementary school in Ottawa, Ontario, that question is being explored more deeply.

As part of an international contest, students at St. Brother André School sent epinephrine — the chemical inside of epipens — to space to see what would happen.

The kids found that the epinephrine did indeed change, a result that one scientist said is a step forward in finding out how medicine in general is affected in space.

"It was crazy that by the end, we were actually right about our hypothesis…. It’s really cool that we found new information.” - Raina Smith, age 11

Where the idea came from

At the beginning of the year, teacher Deborah Quail-Blier and her Grade 4-6 students began working on a proposal for the iEDU’s Cubes in Space contest.

The contest, a collaboration with NASA and in partnership with Science Systems and Applications Inc., allowed students to send whatever they could fit into a 10-centimetre cube into space for experimentation purposes.

A photo shows an empty epipen and two cubes that were used for the experiment, one of which was sent to space.

Pictured are empty epipen vials alongside two cubes filled with epinephrine, one that went to space and one that was used in another research project. (Image submitted by Deborah Quail-Blier)

Eleven-year-old Raina Smith said after some debate, her class decided to send the contents of an epipen to space.

“We wanted to know if astronauts had an allergic reaction in space, or went into cardiac arrest, or even in the future if we colonize Mars, would we be able to rely on epipens and epinephrine,” Raina said in an interview with CBC Kids News.

An epipen is an emergency device used when people have allergic reactions to things like peanuts.

It has a needle that is injected into the skin and releases epinephrine, also called adrenaline, to kick-start the body’s immune response.

Raina and her classmates hypothesized, or predicted, that the medicine would change in outer space.

After a long application process, the class found out that their project was chosen.

Sending epinephrine to space

Raina said that her first reaction was “woah” when she found out that their experiment was going ahead.

“It’s really new and exciting to send something to space, especially as a kid, because it always seems like the adults get to do and find all these new things. It’s actually quite amazing.”

Raina Smith, right, is part of a rare group of students chosen to take part in the Cubes in Space program. (Image submitted by Deborah Quail-Blier)

After filling their cube up with epinephrine, they sent it to chemist Paul Mayer and his team of researchers at the University of Ottawa to analyze it.

“We thought it was a great question,” Mayer told CBC’s Ottawa Morning.

After analyzing the contents of the cube, it was sent to space aboard a NASA spacecraft before returning to the university to be analyzed again to see if anything changed.

Results ‘blew us away,’ said scientist

Mayer said that he was doubtful there would be any changes to the epinephrine.

“Going into it, if the students asked me I probably would've said nothing is likely to happen to the epinephrine.”

But when he and his team looked at the epinephrine, its chemical structure changed.

“It was quite a dramatic yes/no answer to this question, and that just blew us away, and I think it blew the kids away, too,” he said.

Raina said her and her classmates were amazed.

“It was crazy that by the end, we were actually right about our hypothesis,” she said. “It’s really cool that we found new information.”

Raina Smith and her classmates said they were amazed to find out the results of their experiment. (Image submitted by Deborah Quail-Blier)

What’s next?

Mayer said the results are an important reminder to adult scientists far and wide.

“The lesson is that kids are natural scientists because they’re not afraid to ask the question. I as a scientist might have never asked that question because I may have thought I already knew the answer,” said Mayer.

He said although the epinephrine changed, it’s not clear if it would be rendered totally useless in space for those with allergic reactions, so more research is needed.

Without the students at St. Brother André School, Mayer said that research may not be happening at all.

Mayer said his team had a chat with NASA and they’re curious about looking into the research further.

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With files from CBC Ottawa Morning
TOP IMAGE CREDIT: Submitted by Deborah Quail-Blier

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