The title of this month’s article may be a bit perplexing. I can assure you that cancer has not spread to space like some bad B-movie, this is not When Space Cancer Attacks. In this episode of Reaching Orbit we shall peer into the benefits of studying cancer… in spaaaace.
We can safely state that the majority of cancer research has been performed on the surface of our planet. The down side of this is that researchers that study cancer cells under a microscope have to wrestle with changes that occur to cancer cells once they have been removed from the body. Cancer in its native habitat is three-dimensional, supported by proteins and carbohydrates that form structures. In the lab environment they are no longer propped up by the surrounding tissue and molecules, they flatten out and consequently behave differently than they normally would. Scientist trying to examine how genetic changes affect cell growth and development are hampered by this dilemma.
In the not so distant past, other methodologies were developed in an attempt to correct this problem, but none work as well as research in micro-gravity. In space, cells aggregate similarly as when they are in the human body. They form three-dimensional groups and are less likely to encounter turbulence that can affect how they behave. In the last 40 years, a number of studies were conducted in micro-gravity on Skylab, the space shuttles and the International Space Station.
Researching cell growth in this environment has given us clues on the causes of tumor cell development. These studies have also shown changes in genetic expression when exposed to micro-gravity conditions. One study revealed gene expressions were altered in micro-gravity when compared to a control study on the ground. Dr. Jeanne Becker and Glauco Souza recently published a paper in Nature Reviews Cancer that surveys the use of micro-gravity for cancer research and cell biology. The paper is titled, ‘Using Space-Based Investigations to Inform Cancer Research on Earth’.
More recently, procedures have been developed that allow Earth dwellers to better study cancer cells by using a collagen gel matrix to suspend the cells. This new procedure combined with ongoing micro-gravity studies are shedding new light on cellular biology and gene expression of cancer cells. These studies will continue to assist researchers in new and innovative treatment methods for those inflicted with cancer.