Cancer Cells Tamed By Trip To Outer Space

Low-grav experiments may point the way toward more effective treatments on Earth
High magnification micrograph of a form of thyroid cancer

Low gravity may inhibit the growth and spread of thyroid cancer cells. In newly published research, experimental biologists describe the responses of thyroid cancer cell cultures to 22 seconds of simulated microgravity via a parabolic flight campaign (better known as the “vomit comet” to astronaut trainees), compared to 10 days orbiting in the real void, aboard China’s unmanned Shenzou 8 spacecraft in 2011. Many genes and proteins involved in malignant cell growth and metastasis changed behavior in both tests, becoming less aggressive than they would have been on Earth.

The scientists don’t recommend new investments in orbital health clinics, unfortunately–but do believe that that on-the-ground treatments for cancer may improve as cancer cells give up more of their secrets in space-borne experiments like these. The research appears in the February 2014 issue of The FASEB Journal, published by the Federation of American Scientists for Experimental Biology.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that there were around 60,220 new cases of thyroid cancer in the U.S. in 2013, as well as 1,850 deaths, with just over a half-million Americans living with the disease. Although a person’s chances of surviving thyroid cancer are very high, the number of new cases has been rising by about 6 percent a year for the past decade.