How Space Science Advances Cancer Research
Patients with advanced and terminal cancers and cancers that are difficult to treat, like mesothelioma, often live with little hope. And yet there is hope because research is always pushing the boundaries of what is possible. With mesothelioma a lot of hope comes from advanced treatments that help doctors manage the disease rather than cure it, giving patients longer lives. For all cancer patients, though, there may be new hope and that, surprisingly, may come from space science and research.
NASA and other space agencies from around the world have been conducting microgravity research for decades. The purpose is generally to study how little to no 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, but until more advanced technology and space travel it was not possible to find out just 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 with microgravity conditions. The research has included things like 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. Specific to cancer research is the focus on studying cells and tissues in an environment with no gravity. There are many potential applications of this research, with treatment for cancer just one of them.
Microgravity Aids the Study of Cancer and Other Diseases
One of the biggest benefits of microgravity research for advancing cancer treatments is that it simply allows researchers to better study 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 in the dishes because of the downward force.
But when cells grow naturally in the body, whether those are healthy cells or cancer cells, they expand in all directions because the body is three-dimensional and the cells are suspended in bodily fluids. The lab study of cells is not as accurate as it could be. It does not mimic the true state of cells in the body. In microgravity, though, cells in a lab setting expand in all directions, just like they do in the body.
With a more accurate tissue and cell culture, a researcher can better study how cancer cells behave and how healthy cells change into cancer cells. The differences between flat, laboratory cultures, and three-dimensional cells in microgravity are significant. Researching cells in microgravity could help lead to important developments in how we understand and treat cancer.
Cancer Discoveries Made in Space
The study of cells on the International Space Station and on the space shuttles has already turned up some interesting findings that could seriously impact the future of cancer treatments and research. Researchers have found that immune cells change in space, that the immune system can be suppressed under microgravity. Modern cancer research has made important connections between the immune system and cancer, and this adds to the important discoveries.
In another study, cells were cultured on board the space shuttle Columbia and then brought back to Earth. The study of those cells found that thousands of genes were changed by being in space 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 led to the discovery that cancer cells produce less of signaling molecules called cytokines, which may be related to how cancer cells develop and grow.
Microgravity research on cancer cells have found that tumors grow and cancer cells spread more slowly without the force of gravity. Why this is the case is not yet understood, but it could have important implications for treatment. Other researchers are continuing this work and using three-dimensional cell cultures in microgravity to figure out more details about how cancer cells spread.
Radiation and Cancer in Space
A risk of being in space is the fact that astronauts are bombarded by radiation. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field protect people on the ground from this radiation, but in space it can damage DNA in astronauts and trigger changes that could lead to cancer. Researchers are taking advantage of this disadvantage to study how microgravity impacts the damage to DNA and the natural repair process.
There could be many positive ramifications of this research for people with cancer on Earth. One of these is related to radiation as a treatment. Some tumors become resistant to radiation therapy and the treatment becomes ineffective. Results from the current research could be used to help fine-tune tumor cells to make them more susceptible to being destroyed by radiation. The research will also help scientists better understand how radiation therapy may trigger secondary cancers in patients.
These are just some of the many examples in which space research is helping to advance cancer research. Even mechanical space studies, including the development and use of the large robotic arm on the International Space Station, have impacted cancer treatment. The technology has been adapted to MRI machines to allow for robotic microsurgery for brain cancers that is more effective, safer, and less invasive than traditional surgery.
For patients living with cancer now, these developments may seem far-fetched, but they are truly providing hope for everyone. While many types of cancer and early cancers can be treated effectively and even cured, many more people are living with devastating, advanced, difficult, and terminal types of cancer that leave them with little to no hope of survival. The more that research can advance the understanding of how cancer works, how tumors grow, and how they can be stopped, the greater hope these patients have for the future. Space and microgravity research is just one part of cancer research, but it is an important one and it is helping researchers to take significant steps toward better treating difficult cancers like mesothelioma.
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