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Blasting cancer into space

SCIENCE

An Australian researcher is preparing to launch cancer cells into space after Earth-bound trials have shown their behaviour can be significantly altered in near-zero gravity. The cells will be placed into a tissue-sized box and blasted off to the International Space Station. Speaking to the ABC, Dr Joshua Chou of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) said, “We're all very excited about where this research is heading and, more importantly, the implications and impacts to potentially provide the community."

Dr Chou embarked on the space mission after it was discovered that, when cancer cells were placed in a zero-gravity simulator, the effects were extraordinary. Four types of cancer cells were placed in the simulator — ovarian, breast, nose, and lung. “And what we found,” he explained, “was that in the 24 hours in this micro-gravity condition, 80–90 percent of the cancer cells actually die without drug treatment.”


It’s thought that reduced gravity stops the cancer cells communicating with one another. “When we’re in space, what happens to the body is that your cells start to feel this condition, which we call mechanical unloading,” said Dr Chou. “It means there’s a lack of force because there’s no gravity. This actually affects how the cells move, how they function and also dictate their survivability.” This has led Dr Chou and his team to hypothesise that, as the cells can no longer sense their surroundings, they enter a state of apoptosis — or cell death.


It’s not known why cancer cells react differently in reduced gravity, but it’s hoped that when they are launched into space, researchers will have a better understanding of the disease and that the findings will open new paths for cancer treatment in the future. “This is not a golden bullet to cure cancer,” said Dr Chou, “but it can work in parallel with existing therapies, drug treatments, and so forth, to help increase the efficiency of the current treatment.”


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