Cancer is one of the world’s biggest killers and every day scientists are battling it out trying to find that desperately needed cure. And while most of this research is carried out in labs all across the world, some of Australia’s top scientists are taking it a little further – into space. This will be Australia’s first-ever space research mission that involves going to the International Space Station (ISS). While up there scientists will attempt to determine how some of the most aggressive cancer cells react when in zero-gravity.  

The hope is to replicate the results of a similar experiment carried out in a zero-gravity chamber on Earth built by a group of scientists at Australia’s University of Technology (UTS) School of Biomedical Engineering. The hope is to determine how microgravity affects breast, lung, nose, and ovarian cancers, which are some of the hardest to kill. Leading the study is researcher Dr. Joshua Chou of UTS. Dr. Chou and his team will work alongside German YURI in which to build the hardware to transport the cells into space. 

When cancer evolves it splits some of the body’s cells at an uncontrollable rate. The tissue is invaded and cells come together forming a solid tumor until a time when the cells are signaled to begin attacking the body. Unfortunately, no one knows when that will happen. “There must be a means by which cancer cells ‘feel’ and ‘sense’ each other in order to form a tumor,” says Dr. Chou. “We know the only way cancer cells sense their surroundings is through mechanical forces. And these forces only exist when there’s gravity.”

During testing in the UTS microgravity chamber around 80-90% of cells in those ‘hard-to-kill’ cancers were disabled either through death or because they were unable to cling on. Hence why the team is now ready and excited to be performing the experiment 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,” says Chou. 

If successful, the drug could potentially improve existing cancer treatments enough to rid the disease once and for all. 

Photo by Drew Hays