Astronauts On The ISS Are Helping To Test Ways To Fight Cancer

The cancer cells are being cultured in these little boxes. BioServe Space Technologies

The International Space Station is not just a technological marvel, it’s also a fully fledged laboratory. Among its many research projects, NASA particularly want highlight their work on fighting cancer.

The space station's microgravity environment allows astronauts to grow cancer in 3D, unlike Earth-bound labs. This unique feature is being used to test the efficacy of an antibody drug on cancer. The drug should help the immune system fight tumors.

“In space, you can grow larger and larger cancer tumors spherical in shape, so you have a better model of what’s happening in the human body,” Dr Luis Zea, research associate for Bioserve Space Technologies, said in a statement. “The chances of having false negatives or false positives is decreased.”

The investigation, known as The Efficacy and Metabolism of Azonafide Antibody-Drug Conjugates (ADCs) in Microgravity, will also help determine whether cells behave in the same way in space and whether the drugs have the same effects. This could be particularly important for deep-space missions.

“We don’t know if the cells will be metabolizing the drug at the same rate as they do on Earth,” said co-investigator Dhaval Shah. “In the long term, we need to be sure what drugs are going to work.”

The ADC investigation combines an antibody with a chemotherapy drug known as Azonafide. The researchers hope that the antibody will deliver the cancer-killing drug directly to cancer cells without mistakenly attacking healthy cells.

“One of the reasons cancer cells grow in certain individuals is their defense mechanism fails to recognize them,” said Shah. “This molecule also has the ability to wake up or release the break on existing immune cells within the cancer. In any given tumor, when these molecules are released [from the cancer cell], they ‘wake up’ the surrounding immune cells and stimulate the body’s own immune system, making it recognize and kill the cancer cells itself.”

Chemotherapy is also not without its side effects. Nausea, fatigue, hair loss, and cognitive impairment often accompany the therapy. Researchers hope their combination could limit the amount of side effects, without reducing its cancer-fighting potency.

“The antibody is like a connector block,” said Zea. “On one side, it will only bind to the drug and on the other side may only bind to cancer cells and not healthy cells. So by combining these two, the idea is to decrease the nasty side effects of chemotherapy.”

The research will be concluded in September, so stay tuned for updates.

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