Anticancer Therapies Extend Beyond Earth

By on February 6, 2014

Since the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, which led former President George W. Bush to announce the end of the Space Shuttle Program, the necessity of NASA and funding for space exploration has been questioned. Should we really be pouring limited government dollars into such a dangerous and costly endeavor? The February edition of The FASEB Journal highlights a discovery that could make the answer to this question much clearer: cancerous thyroid cells are less aggressive in microgravity.

The basis for the research stems from the known negative effects of prolonged space travel on the human body. Examples include cardiovascular and immune system conditions in addition to mechanical alterations at the cellular level. The cause of such side effects remains unknown; however, researchers hypothesized that these negative effects could aid in the destruction of harmful cancer cells.

A team of scientists from Denmark and Germany completed the testing of cells in November 2011 aboard China’s unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou-8. A second set of cells was analyzed from a desktop random positioning machine (RPM), made to simulate microgravity conditions. The first step was identifying specific proteins sensitive to the microgravity conditions that are also known to aid the growth of tumors. The scientists focused on expression factors involved with inhibition of angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels form from pre-existing vessels. This process is vital to the transition of a benign tumor to a malignant state. The expression of VEGF, a key inducer of angiogenesis, was down regulated in both the space study and the RPM simulation. IL6 and IL8 are two genes involved in the gravity-sensitive signaling that allows for spherical formation of tumors. Results showed that microgravity weakens this signal overtime.

The benefits of this study extend beyond the attenuation of thyroid cancer cells. As research continues, scientists will gain a better understanding of the microgravity-induced changes occurring at the cellular level. This has huge implications for the entire fields of cell biology and cancer research. Collaborative research plans are already in the works between NASA and the International Space Station. Scientists are working to perfect the conditions simulated by the RPM to make the studies and experimentation more feasible on a larger scale. Hopefully, these findings can increase support for space exploration, because some of the solutions to disease may literally be out of this world.

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