Cancer researchers looking for a breakthrough might want to relocate to the International Space Station. Biologists have found that microgravity research and other space-based experiments provide greater insight into abnormal cell behavior.
In Earth-bound labs, cells grow flat, unable to fully mimic the three-dimensional architecture shaped by proteins and carbohydrates of a working human organ. This gap provides an obstacle for scientists studying changes in cell growth and development.
In space, cells clump together easily, arranging themselves into three-dimensional groupings that better replicate cell activity. They also experience less fluid shear stress, a type of disturbance that affects their behavior outside of the body.
Many of the cells in space will likely die due to a lack of blood vessels providing necessary oxygen and nutrients. That might seem like a disadvantage, but it actually resembles the condition of tumors with areas of dead tissue at their centers, biologists say.
The Cellular Biotechnology Operations Support System (CBOSS-1-Ovarian) investigation, located aboard the space station, contains a cell incubator that grows 3-D clusters of cells. These structures have enhanced the ability of researchers to understand protein production, a key element of cell behavior.
Jeanne Becker, Ph.D., a cell biologist at Nano3D Biosciences in Houston and principal investigator for the CBOSS-1-Ovarian study, recently authored a paper that examined cell biology research in microgravity from the past four decades.
“So many things change in 3-D, it’s mind-blowing — when you look at the function of the cell, how they present their proteins, how they activate genes, how they interact with other cells,” Becker said in a statement. “The variable that you are most looking at here is gravity, and you can’t really take away gravity on Earth. You have to go where gravity is reduced.”
Among the studies covered in the paper: one investigation conducted on the Columbia space shuttle in 1998 revealed cultured cells with altered genetic expressions. The results of another space-based experiment indicated that microgravity suppresses the immune system.
While the unique physical conditions of space have proven apt, research on Earth is also making headway with the construction of 3-D cell structures using a collagen gel matrix. Combined with microgravity studies, such research advances could greatly help biologists understand the cellular changes that lead to cancer and develop ways to prevent them.