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Can Zero Gravity Kill Cancer Cells?

Australian researchers are gearing up to send cancer cells to outer space, following promising study results. Joshua Chou, a biomedical engineering researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, conducted a study to investigate the potential effects of zero gravity on cancer cells. He explained, “We took four different types of cancer cells from different parts of the body — breast, ovary, lungs and nose — and put them in a microgravity condition. And what we found was that in 24 hours, 80% to 90% of these cancer cells actually died.”

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Chou plans to send cancer cells to the International Space Station next year for more answers. "We want to see if it is actually microgravity that’s having an effect on the cell, or could it be other things in space — like solar radiation?" he said.

Believe it or not, this won’t be the first time cancer cells are sent to space. Daniela Grimm, a professor of gravitational biology and translational regenerative medicine at the University of Magdeburg in central Germany, led an experiment in 2017 to test the behavior of thyroid cancer cells in space.

Researchers have been studying how cells develop into cell clusters at microgravity. The cell clusters — called spheroids — contain different proteins that trigger programmed cell death. In healthy cells, this allows old and damaged cells to die. But in tumor cells, the cell death is ineffective, and the diseased cell continues to live and divide, causing the cancer to multiply. By studying cells in microgravity and investigating their behavior in space, researchers are hoping to find ways to stimulate or inhibit cell proteins.

Chou explained, “When we're in space, what happens to the body is that your cells start to feel this condition which we call mechanical unloading. It means that there's a lack of force because there's no gravity. This actually affects how the cells move, how they function and also dictate their survivability. Our hypothesis is that they can no longer sense their surrounding and, therefore, the cells go into the state of apoptosis, or cell death."

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