Pending final approval from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis), Merck Research Laboratories will begin studying therapeutic monoclonal antibodies (MABs) on the International Space Station to learn if the microgravity environment there can aid in drug development.

Casis, the nonprofit organization NASA selected to manage the ISS National Laboratory, is in the process of selecting research projects growing out of its initial request for proposals, which involved protein crystallization in microgravity. MABs are proteins engineered to bind to specific disease-causing targets, which can promote healing without dangerous or unpleasant side effects.

The Florida-based nonprofit has also announced a second call for proposals, this time involving materials testing in the open-space environment on ISS external facilities.

In the Merck agreement, the international drug company will “explore the microgravity effects on several bio-processing applications within the unique environment of the ISS National Lab,” said Paul Reichert, chemistry research fellow at the Merck Research Laboratories.

In the past, MABs have been developed for the treatment of specific cancers and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In microgravity , protein crystals can be grown much larger than on the ground to enable higher-resolution definition of their structure for drug engineering. The technique has been in use since the 1980s, and promises to be a major application of ISS biomedical research facilities.

If the Merck proposal passes the standard Casis valuation and prioritization process , the research could begin as early as mid-2013.