Cancer cells become less aggressive in space

Understanding what inhibits cancer growth in microgravity could help researchers develop treatments that accomplish the same thing on Earth.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor
Studies on the impacts of space exploration on the human body haven’t always been good news. Not only does microgravity cause certain microbes to become virulent, but there are known negative effects on the body: from bone loss to weakened heart muscle to eye abnormalities

But as it turns out, thyroid cancer cells change their behavior in space, for the better it seems.

Just this week, an international team of researchers revealed how some tumors that are aggressive on earth are considerably less aggressive in microgravity. Understanding what inhibits cancer growth in space could help researchers develop treatments that accomplish the same thing on Earth.

To better understand the genetic and cellular processes that occur in space, a team led by Daniela Gabriele Grimm of Aarhus University in Denmark focused on the effects on cancer cells of both short-term, simulated microgravity with as well as long-term, real microgravity:

  1. Twenty-two seconds with a parabolic flight campaign. (This is better known as the "vomit comet" to astronaut trainees, Popular Science explains.)
  2. Ten days with the Science in Microgravity Box (SIMBOX) experimental facility aboard China’s unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, which was launched on October 31, 2011. 

Their results suggest that the expression of genes indicating a high malignancy in cancer cells may be down-regulated under altered gravitational stimulation. That is, they experience a “redifferentiation” to a less aggressive state. This latest study shows how microgravity is an invaluable tool for exploring new targets in anti-cancer therapy, and that they can be simulated in some aspects in ground-based facilities.

In fact, cell biology studies in low gravity have been informing biomedical research on Earth since the 1970s with Skylab, NASA’s first space station. Some examples of recent cancer research from NASA: 

  • With the CBOSS-01-Ovarian study, a human ovarian tumor cell line was grown on the International Space Station. In labs here, cells grow flat -- but in space, these same cells arrange themselves into 3D groupings that more closely resemble what happens in the body. 
  • The MEPS-II project focused on cancer treatment delivery, specifically, microcapsules -- tiny biodegradable balloons containing anti-tumor treatments -- at the Johnson Space Center. By using microgravity to modify the fluid mechanics, researchers were able to devise better methods of microcapsule development here. 

"With the International Space Station, we have a lab that doesn't exist anywhere else," says Jeanne Becker of Nano3D Biosciences who led the ovarian cancer study. "It's an exciting platform for discovery."

The work was published in The FASEB Journal this week. 

Thumbnail image: microencapsulation containing anti-tumor drugs made on the space station / NASA

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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