Australian researchers plan to launch cancer cells into orbit for an experiment on the International Space Station after their research on Earth indicated micro-gravity had a remarkable effect on some common cancers.
Dr Joshua Chou at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) discovered that after 24 hours in a micro-gravity simulator in their lab, 80-90 per cent of cells in samples of four types of cancers – lung, breast, nose and ovarian – had died.
That’s without any other type of treatment. Just why isn’t known. He suspects it may have something to do with how cancer cells communicate with each other.
"When we're in space, what happens to the body is that your cells start to feel this condition which we call mechanical unloading," he told the ABC television 7.30 program.
"This actually affects how the cells move, how they function and also dictate their survivability.
"Our hypothesis is that they can no longer sense their surrounding and, therefore, the cells go into the state of apoptosis or cell death.
"We're all very excited about where this research is heading and more importantly, the implications and impacts to potentially provide the community."
UTS student Anthony Kirollos likened that to being on a roller-coaster.
"If you've ever been on a roller-coaster, you have that gut feeling of dropping, so that's dropping towards the centre of the Earth, essentially, we constantly want the cells to experience that," he said.
The International Space Station is designated as a US National Laboratory, enabling space research and development access to a broad range of commercial, academic and government users.
The ISS National Laboratory is managed by the US non-profit NGO the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, which promotes the facility and brokers research proposals.
Their website says the ISS National Laboratory has hosted more than 2,400 research investigations from researchers from more than 100 countries.
It’s planned that the UTS experiment will be carried to the ISS on a launch next year.
Preparing an experiment to go into space is challenging and also expensive, with a price tag around $200,000, Dr Chou said.
"We're limited to the dimensions and the weight of what we can send up there. So a lot of the technology actually has to be miniaturised.
"In my head, this is not supposed to be a cure, a golden bullet to cure cancer, but it can work in parallel to existing therapies, drug treatments and so forth, to help increase the efficiency of the current treatment.”
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