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NASA teams with an elementary school project to test EpiPens in space

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We often tell our kids to shoot for the stars. Students at a Canadian elementary school did just that. They teamed up with NASA to see if a lifesaving drug would work in space. Their experiment was sent up in a rocket, and they made a big discovery. EpiPens used to deliver emergency treatment for severe allergic reactions may not work in space. So how did they figure it out? First, like all good scientists, they started with a question.

RAINA SMITH: We really wanted to know, for all the people who rely on EpiPens or epinephrine, if they ever went to space or astronauts in space, would we be able to rely on these things?

MARTIN: That's Raina Smith, one of the students who worked on the project. Once she and her classmates figured out the question, they needed to find a way to test whether space travel would affect epinephrine or not. Kara Murray says the next step was to make an educated guess.

KARA MURRAY: So my hypothesis was that if the epinephrine went to space, the radiation would change the molecular structure because on Earth, the UV radiation from the sun changes it. So the ionizing radiation in space should change the molecular structure of the epinephrine in the EpiPen solution.

MARTIN: The students partnered with Professor Paul Meyer, a chemist at the University of Ottawa. Using specialized tools, they compared the molecular structure of the pure epinephrine and the EpiPen solution before spaceflight and after spaceflight.

KARA: The pure epinephrine turned into 13% benzoic acid, which is toxic. So that would make the epinephrine poisonous. And the EpiPen solution resulted - there were no epinephrine molecules remaining.

MARTIN: For Raina, the results were pretty exciting.

RAINA: I was really happy because it's incredible to know that at such a young age, we could potentially be making an impact on the world. And at such a young age, we found out big science.

MARTIN: And the students aren't done yet.

RAINA: So this year, the next steps are first to validate our results and see if we get the same results as last year and then to also design some sort of protective system to hopefully protect the pure epinephrine and EpiPen solution in space.

MARTIN: We also wanted to know if they had any advice they wanted to pass on, based on their success. Kara says...

KARA: Don't be afraid to try to answer your question, even if it may seem silly or if you think that it might seem obvious. And you might find out something really big.

MARTIN: And for Raina...

RAINA: There's no right age to try and do something new with science. Anyone at any age can discover something new, as long as you have the passion and you put your 100% in.

MARTIN: How big are their plans? Some might say out of this world.

RAINA: I really do hope that we can design something to protect the EpiPen solution and pure epinephrine in space so that in the future, anyone that has anaphylactic allergies or relies on EpiPens or pure epinephrine, if they want to, they can go to space or even colonize Mars in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That was Kara Murray and Raina Smith. They are students at St. Brother Andre Elementary School's program for gifted learners in Ottawa, Canada. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.