Click the arrow to watch the October 16, 2015 “Space Station Live.” Video source: NASA Johnson YouTube channel.
For decades, NASA has promised that human spaceflight would lead to medical miracle cures and treatments.
Until recently, those promises have remained unfulfilled. Myths abound. A common one is that NASA invented Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). NASA admits the agency didn't invent MRI, but “it has contributed to its advances over the years.”
The Space Shuttle could carry a microgravity science laboratory, but its research was limited to no more than three weeks. The vibrations by crew movements were less than ideal for microgravity research, but some results looked promising.
The International Space Station serves as humanity's only full-time microgravity science laboratory. NASA selected the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) in 2012 to manage the U.S. National Laboratory on the International Space Station, to accelerate and facilitate space research.
It can take many years, if not decades, for research to lead to a commercial product, but some have already reached the market. In July 2013, I wrote about commercial pharmaceutical products on the market developed in microgravity.
Microgravity research advocates often say that the public — and by extension Congress — want a “magic bullet” discovery to justify the billions spent on the ISS.
A joint research team from Denmark and Germany might be close to pulling the trigger.
Grimm Space Research is led by Dr. Daniela Grimm with the Institute of Biomedicine, Pharmacology at Aarhus University in Denmark. The partners are researching a potential treatment for thyroid cancer.
In October 2011, Grimm launched its first experiment called SIMBOX on the Chinese Shenzhou 8 mission. According to the Grimm web site:
The principle aim of this Shenzhou spaceflight is to investigate how thyroid carcinoma cells react, when they are exposed to real microgravity. These experiments will confirm and/or extend the knowledge, which we gained when we characterized the thyroid cancer cells after exposure to simulated microgravity. The expected information may help to improve in vitro cancer studies such as antitumor drug or transendothelial migration tests.
Click the arrow to watch a film on the Simbox experiment on Shenzhou-8. Video source: Ian Benecken YouTube channel.
The results, published in The FASEB Journal in February 2014, concluded:
Our experiments indicate that microgravity, preferably real as in spaceflight, but also in some respects simulated on the [Random Positioning Machine] RPM, induce changes in the expression and secretion of genes and proteins involved in cancer cell proliferation, metastasis, and survival, shifting the cells toward a less aggressive phenotype. Further studies to investigate the involved mechanisms in more detail are expected to yield novel targets for cancer therapy, which may then be exploited in the form of new chemotherapeutics.
The Grimm team, working with the German space agency and German university funding, created a second experiment to fly on the SpaceX CRS-3 mission in April 2014. The Cellbox-Thyroid Cancer experiment flew on a Nanoracks research platform. According to the ISS Program Science database web site:
The principle aim of NanoRacks-CellBox-Effect of Microgravity on Human Thyroid Carcinoma Cells (NanoRacks-CellBox-Thyroid Cancer) is to investigate the effects of real microgravity on human thyroid carcinoma cells (FTC-133 cell line). Data obtained from this experiment is compared to the thyroid cancer cells characterized after exposure to simulated microgravity and after the successful SIMBOX on Shenzhou-8 mission (2011, Experiment 14).
A Space Odyssey of Cancer Cells from Rais Foto on Vimeo.
Preparation of the samples and their launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 were documented in the video short, A Space Odyssey of Cancer Cells.
The results from the second flight are discussed by Dr. Grimm in the above NASA Space Station Live video posted October 16, 2015 on YouTube. She states the results will be published soon, but the results were promising.
A third experiment, called ESA Spheroids, is scheduled to fly on SpaceX CRS-8. According to the ISS database, “the goal of Spheroids is to investigate the three-dimensional cell assembly under real microgravity, while emphasizing proliferation, differentiation and induction of apoptosis (programmed cell death).”
Although no official launch date has been announced by SpaceX or NASA, Grimm Space Research posted October 15 on its web site that the mission is tentatively scheduled to launch on January 3, 2016.
Next week we will have a telecon with ESA, RUAG and Kayser Italia to discuss the logistic for our trip to Cape Canaveral. We already stated during a telecon last week that the first persons of our science team will arrive on December 17th in Cape Canaveral to reculture the cell. Which means some of us will already be in Florida for X-Mas. The whole team will celebrate New Year together.
Since Monday, we are in contact with Julien Harrod, an editor from ESA, who will follow and promote ESA astronaut Tim Peakes's Principia mission. Here your find Tim Peakes Principia Blog. In this blog you will find some information about our SPHEROIDS project.
The SpaceX CRS-8 payload that will probably receive the most publicity is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), the prototype for the company's full-scale expandable habitats currently under construction in North Las Vegas.
But if the Grimm research flights lead to a treatment for cancer, these SpaceX flights could remembered for pulling the trigger on the first magic bullet.