New cancer hope defies gravity
On the back of successful lab trials, Joshua Chou’s research team will undertake a research mission to the International Space Station. Their aim is to establish if their microgravity device can kill four of the most aggressive types of cancer – ovarian, breast, nose and lung.
You're loaded into a high-tech space capsule with some of your closest friends. For the past few weeks you've been abuzz. Not about the space mission you're about to undertake (you're not conscious enough for that), but about the havoc you can wreak on your unsuspecting victim.
As the engines roar and the countdown slows, you feel yourself jostling inside the capsule. Reaching the outer limits of the Earth’s atmosphere, you start to float, and begin to wonder what's happening? You try to 'talk' to your friends, but nothing happens. You can't feel them or see them. Is this the end?
For cancer cells, Joshua Chou sure hopes it is.
Early next year, the biomedical engineer is leading a research mission to the International Space Station. After promising trials in his lab, Joshua hopes this mission will prove zero-gravity disables cancer cells. And, revolutionises the way we treat cancer.
One day, I was at Bondi Beach gazing at the sky when I recalled a conversation I had with Stephen Hawking at Harvard. He told me to remember that nothing defies gravity.
And that really hit me because it was around the time a close friend was diagnosed with cancer and the question just clicked in my head: ‘What would happen to cancer cells if we take them out of gravity?’
Cancer treatment is always something I’ve been interested in. I’ve watched three people I love suffer from lung, breast and cervical cancer and I felt so helpless.
When placed in a microgravity environment, 80 to 90 per cent of the cells in the four different cancer types we tested – ovarian, breast, nose and lung – were disabled.
Cancer is, essentially, a disease of the cells. While there are many different types, they all involve some of the body’s cells dividing uncontrollably and invading other tissue. For example, breast cancer invades breast tissue; lung cancer invades lung tissue; and so on.
The cancer cells do this by coming together to form a solid tumour which continues to grow until a point in which the cells are signalled to invade the body. The problem is nobody knows exactly when that point is reached, but this process indicates there must be a means by which cancer cells ‘feel’ and ‘sense’ each other in order to form a tumour.
Taking an out-of-this-world approach to cancer research
My work focuses on the question: What are the receptors for this ‘sensing’ function?
We know the only way cancer cells sense their surroundings is through mechanical forces. And those forces only exist when there’s gravity.
This motivated me to think about how we can disrupt the way we study cancer with an out-of-world approach.
My first introduction to space research was in 2014. It was during my time at Harvard when I worked on a project that created an osteoporotic drug. That drug, EVENITY®, was developed from research conducted at the International Space Station. It’s now been on the market and helping patients for six months.
This first experience of seeing how the space environment impacts our understanding of cell biology and disease progression inspired me to ask: ‘Why can’t we apply the same strategy to studying other cells and diseases?’
Simulating microgravity to assess the impact on cancer cells
To find these answers, I asked a recent graduate of mine to develop Australia’s first microgravity device so my amazing team at UTS could pursue this project. The device is essentially a container the size of a tissue box that spins on an axis in something that looks like the pods astronauts train in. This platform allows us to study different diseases in a microgravity environment.
Driving this mission has been a whole team effort – I feel very fortunate to be supported by my faculty and a group of very talented female engineering students who inspire me to keep going. They do so much of the hard work in making this project a reality.
Does zero gravity disable cancer cells?
Our work has found that when placed in a microgravity environment, 80 to 90 per cent of the cells in the four different cancer types we tested – ovarian, breast, nose and lung – were disabled. By disabled, I mean they either die or float off because they can no longer hold on. Those four cancer types are some of the hardest cancers to kill.
What makes our research so significant is that no drugs were used in the testing. By simply altering the gravitational forces, there was a profound effect on these cancer cell types and their ability to ‘sense’ each other. And, now we’re ready to verify if they do the same thing in space.
The space mission
In early 2020, my team and I will fly to SpaceX in the United States to launch a research mission to the International Space Station.
When we arrive we’ll load the cancer cells into the space module we developed specifically for the mission. And, once launched, the experiment will last for seven days. We’ll be stationed at the launch site, for the length of the experiment, in dedicated rooms to observe a data feed and conduct live-cell imaging.
After seven days the cells will be automatically frozen and preserved for their return trip back to Earth 21 days later via the shuttle. After they set foot back on Earth they will be returned to UTS and Harvard where we will continue to examine any genetic changes.
Turning world-first research into cancer treatment
My hope is that we can confirm what we found in the lab and be able to identify new targets and can introduce a drug that ‘tricks’ the cancer cell into thinking it’s in space when it’s still on Earth.
My vision is that this drug would work alongside existing treatments to improve treatment timespan and efficiency.
It would not be a magic bullet, but it could give current treatments like chemotherapy a big enough boost to kill the disease.
The era of space biology
I also hope this is one of many Australian space research missions. My team and I are so fortunate to get the opportunity to do this research as it’s so rare and we’ll use our mission findings to signal to the Australian research community that the era of space biology and medicine is well and truly here.
Australia has always been at the forefront of medical innovation and cancer treatment and this development is no exception. It’s incredibly humbling to be part of this historical operation which has the potential to have such significant impact on humanity.
Joshua Chou is a senior lecturer in the School of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology.
His team’s upcoming space mission has been supported by UTS Startup Arlula, the only Australian company that supports organisations with space research launches to the International Space Station.