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Four Decades Of Cancer Research In Space: How We’ve Benefited

Space base Cancer research
Cancer research in space has been going on for over 4 decades and is leading to findings that would have been impossible on earth. Pixabay Creative Commons

Today is the 52nd anniversary of the first manned spaceflight, when Yuri Gagarin, a Russian Cosmonaut, made a successful foray into space an orbited the earth, a feat that was unimaginable a decade before.

Since then we have seen multiple space stations, landings on the moon, the space shuttle program, a complex network of telecommunications an GPS satellite that we cannot live without in the modern age and even the landing of multiple rovers on the surface of Mars for exploration and geological discovery.

What many people don't realize is that there is much to be learned from spaceflight and micro-gravity that can have a huge impact on every day life on Earth.  There has been close to four decades of biological research in space that has resulted in significant findings related to cancer research and treatment.  These tools, only available in the close to zero gravity of orbit, give scientists the ability to run experiments that would be impossible on earth.  Hundreds of peer reviewed scientific papers have been published from biological research performed in space.

To mark the momentous anniversary of the first man in space, Nature Reviews Cancer has published an editorial review showcasing the benefits researchers have gained by studying cancer in space.

One such significant piece of research that has helped scientists understand the growth of tumors concerns the difference between 2D and 3D.  Like choosing which Avatar movie you want to go to, seeing the movie in 2-dimensions or 3-dimensions has a significantly different impact on how it is perceived. 

Similarly, when cancer cells are grown in culture plates in laboratories on Earth, they grow in a 2-dimensional flat sheet because gravity pulls them down.  We all know that cancerous tumors in people grow in a 3-dimnesional shape, so how can laboratory culture techniques reproduce this biological process?  By growing cancer cells in space, researchers have observed that they naturally form a 3-dimensional structure. In this 3D structure the cancer cells look different and behave differenly than when they are grown on a flat surface, more closely mimicking tumor biology in people and animals.

Research on Earth has caught up to this model of cancer growth and now many experiments on cancer cells, particularly breast cancer cells, make use of a collagen gel matrix.  This is essentially a nutrient rich jell-o that the cancer cells grow in and form a 3-dimensional structure.  The benefit is that the new 3D cell cultured tumor behaves more like a tumor that exists in a living system such as a human or mouse and is more relevant to cancer research than cells that grow flat. 

The experiments performed in space on cancer cells is not only related to observing the growth of cells.  Technology that is currently being commercialized to make microcapsules of cancer killing agents (essentially, microscopic pills with medication inside)  was partially developed on space shuttle missions between 1996 and 1998.  This lead to the development of new experiments run on the International Space Station and the further development of the technology. 

As described by NASA's website "A single step process forming tiny liquid-filled, biodegradable micro-balloons containing various drug solutions (a process called microgravity micro-encapsulation) can provide better drug delivery and new medical treatments for solid tumors and resistant infections."

"Testing in mouse models [on Earth] has shown that these unique microcapsules can be injected into human prostate tumors to inhibit tumor growth or can be injected following cryo-surgery (freezing) to improve the destruction of the tumors much better than freezing or local chemotherapy alone."  Freezing and chemotherapy are typical treatments used for prostate cancer in people.

Other space-based cancer research that is not rooted solely in examining cancer cells but also concern your circadian rhythm. This day-night cycle of wake and sleep has been shown to impact cancer risk, showing that women who work night shifts are more likely to develop ovarian and breast cancer and men are more likely to develop prostate cancer.

Light therapy with certain wavelengths of blue light induces suppression of melatonin, which results in wakefulness and alertness.  Yet it is known that extended suppression of melatonin is associated with a disruption in the sleep-wake cycle and this increases the risk for certain cancers. Astronauts have used this light therapy method to combat the sleepiness and fatigue associated with spaceflight and long term studies on their health will help us understand the impact on overall health. 

Taken together spaceflight has given scientists tools to study cancer that would not normally be available on Earth and allowed them to figure out problems that would have impossible to do in full gravity.  The continued pursuit of biological research in space not only contributes to cancer biology, but to the growing of crops for food, understanding the immune system and the fighting of infections and muscle weakness and loss in certain musculoskeletal diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and ALS.

The review published in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer can be found here.

More information about space based research cancer drug delivery can be found on NASA's website here.

For an extensive list of all the biology and biotechnology related research that takes place on the International Space Station click here

 

 

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