3 mins read 28 Nov 2019

Australia’s cancer research project heading to ISS

New research project to study the behaviour of cancer cells in microgravity environment, aboard space station experiment.

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.

A new cancer research project, run by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) will be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) to study the behaviour of cells division and regeneration, in the hope of building better pharmaceutical drugs to combat some of the hardest illnesses to manage here on Earth, such as ovarian, breast, nose and lung cancers.

The research is being led by Dr. Joshua Chou and hopes to replicate some promising results that have been established here on Earth, using cancer cells in a zero-gravity chamber which Dr. Chou and his team from the UTS School of Biomedical Engineering developed.

Announcing his research and experiment heading to the ISS, the mission sends out a strong signal to the Australian research community that the era of space medicine and biology are here.

“There must be a means by which cancer cells ‘feel’ and ‘sense’ each other in order to form a tumour. We know the only way cancer cells sense their surroundings is through mechanical forces. And those forces only exist when there’s gravity,” said Dr Chou

Cancer involves body cells dividing uncontrollably and invading tissue, with the cells coming together to form a solid tumour which continues to grow until a point in which the cells are ‘signalled’ to invade the body.

No one knows exactly when that point is reached.

In tests in a microgravity environment at UTS, 80 to 90 per cent of the cells in the cancer types were disabled - they either die or float off because they can no longer hold on.

“We’re ready to verify if the cells do the same thing in space. My hope is to confirm what we found in the lab and be able to identify new targets and introduce a drug that ‘tricks’ the cancer cell into thinking it’s in space when it’s actually still on Earth,” he said. 

“My vision is that this drug would work alongside existing treatments to improve treatment timespan and efficiency.

"It would not be a magic bullet, but it could give current treatments like chemotherapy a big enough boost to kill the disease.” 

Previously, Dr. Chou’s research at Harvard was conducted on the ISS and looked into how the space environment impacts the understanding of cell biology and disease progression. The result of this was a new drug which has been on the market for six months and currently helping patients.

Dr Chou also organised the first-ever Space Biology Symposium at UTS bringing together scientists, investors, government and space enthusiasts to consider advances in space biology and medicine. Topics included research and development of new types of pharmaceuticals, engineered tissues, and emerging medical technologies.