How Space Science Advances Cancer Research
Patients with advanced, terminal, and difficult to treat cancers like mesothelioma, often live with little hope. Yet, there is hope as research pushes the boundaries and enters unexplored areas. With mesothelioma, hope comes from advanced treatments that help doctors manage the disease, lengthening patient lives. However, there may be new hope for cancer patients. Surprisingly, that hope may come from space science.
For decades, NASA and other space agencies around the world have been conducting microgravity research. Generally, the purpose is to study how gravity affects biological systems as well as chemistry and physics. Here on earth, we have a certain amount of gravitational force exerted on all objects. However, until more advanced technology and space travel it was not possible to examine how that force impacts everything on the planet.
The Microgravity Research Program led by NASA, as well as other space agencies, like the European Space Agency, have conducted research on the ground and in space in microgravity conditions. Research has included the effect of gravity on bone strength and blood pressure, processing metals in space, and determining how plants grow in microgravity.
NASA’s microgravity program includes several subprograms, including the biotechnology research program. It is this program that has conducted medical and health research in microgravity. Research specific to cancer focuses on observing cells and tissues in a zero gravity environment. There are many potential applications of this research, and cancer treatment is one of them.
Microgravity Aids the Study of Cancer and Other Diseases
One of the biggest benefits of microgravity research for advancing cancer treatment is that it allows better study of cancer cells. Cancer researchers use tissue and cell cultures in lab dishes to conduct much of their research. Under earth’s gravity, these cells flatten out due to downward force.
However, when cells grow naturally in the body, whether healthy or cancerous, they expand in all directions. This is because cells are suspended in bodily fluids and the body is three-dimensional. Laboratory research is not entirely accurate. It does not mimic the true state of cells in the body. However, in microgravity, cells expand in all directions, just like they do in the body.
With a more accurate tissue and cell culture, a researcher can more accurately study how cancer cells behave as well as how healthy cells morph to become cancerous. The differences are significant between flat, laboratory cultures, and three-dimensional cells in microgravity. Researching cells in microgravity could lead to important developments in how we treat and understand cancer.
Cancer Discoveries Made in Space
Researching cells on the International Space Station has turned up interesting findings that could seriously impact the future of cancer treatments and research. Researchers have found that immune cells change in space. Microgravity conditions actually suppress the body’s immune system. Modern cancer research has made important connections between the immune system and cancer, which adds importance to this discovery.
In another study, cells cultured on board the space shuttle Columbia were later brought back to Earth. When the cultured cells were examined, researchers discovered that thousands of genes were changed when compared to control cells cultured on Earth. Other studies have used microgravity to examine specific types of cancer cells, including ovarian and prostate cancer cells. These studies discovered that cancer cells produce less signaling molecules called cytokines in microgravity. This is potentially related to how cancer cells grow and develop.
Research also has discovered that without the force of gravity tumors grow and cancer cells spread more slowly. Although the reasons are not fully understood, this discovery could have important implications for treatment. Other researchers are continuing this work using three-dimensional cell cultures in microgravity to figure out how cancer cells spread.
Radiation and Cancer in Space
Radiation bombards astronauts while they are in space. The Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere naturally protect people from this radiation. In space, however, this radiation is unfiltered and can damage DNA, triggering changes that could lead to cancer. Researchers are taking advantage of this disadvantage to study how microgravity impacts damage to DNA and the natural repair process.
This research could have positive results for people with cancer on Earth. One ramification relates to radiation as a cancer treatment. Some tumors become resistant to radiation therapy, causing the treatment to become ineffective. Results from current research could be used to fine-tune tumor cells, making them more susceptible to radiation. The research will also help scientists understand how radiation therapy triggers secondary cancers in patients.
Even mechanical space studies, including the use of the large robotic arm on the International Space Station, have impacted cancer treatment. Doctors have adapted this technology for MRI machines, allowing robotic microsurgery for brain cancers. Robotic surgery is less invasive and more effective than traditional surgery. These are just some of the many examples of how space research is helping advance cancer research.
For patients currently living with cancer, these developments may seem far-fetched, but they truly provide hope for everyone. The more that research can advance the understanding of tumor growth and cancer, the greater hope these patients with incurable cancers can have for the future. Space and microgravity research is just one part of cancer research. However, it is a significant step toward better treatment for difficult cancers like mesothelioma.
Page Edited by Dave Foster
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