NASA has pioneered space research to fight cancer

In the zero-gravity environment of space, cells age faster, leading to “impressive progress” in the fight against cancer.


Space is “a unique place for research,” astronaut Frank Rubio said at a recent event in Washington.

The doctor and former military helicopter pilot conducted cancer research on a recent trip to the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits about 400 kilometers above Earth.

There, not only do cells age quickly, accelerating research, but their structures are also described as “pure.”

“They don't all clump together (as they do) on Earth because of gravity. They're suspended in space,” allowing better analysis of their molecular structures, NASA director Bill Nelson explained in an interview.

Space research could help develop more effective drugs against cancer, Nelson added.

Drugmaker Merck is currently working on ISS with Keytruda, a drug that is given intravenously to patients.

Its main ingredient is difficult to convert into a liquid state. One solution is crystallization, which is often used in pharmaceutical manufacturing.

In 2017, Merck conducted experiments to see if such crystals could form faster in space than on Earth.

With two photographs, Nelson showed that small, uniform crystals form in space. “They were well trained,” the NASA chief said.

Thanks to that study, researchers could develop a drug that could be given by injection in a doctor's office instead of long and painful chemotherapy treatments, he explained.

While working to create a drug that can be stored at room temperature, Merck has discovered techniques that can help replicate the effects of these crystals on Earth.

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However, it may take years for a drug developed in space to become widely available.

Cancer research in space began 40 years ago, but only recently has become “revolutionary,” said Nelson, a former Democratic senator who went into space in 1986.

“We use the languages โ€‹โ€‹of space to mark the boundaries of cancer,” says W. Kymryn Rathmel added.

President Joe Biden launched the “Cancer Moonshot” initiative when he was Vice President of the United States in 2016, while former President John F. echoed Kennedy's speech, some 60 years earlier, describing the audacious goal of sending an American to the moon.

The goal of the “moonshot” is to cut cancer death rates in half over the next quarter century, saving four million lives, according to the White House.

The battle against cancer, the nation's second leading cause of death after heart disease, directly touches Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015.

“We all know someone โ€” and many of us love someone โ€” who has battled this terrible disease,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters Thursday at NASA facilities.

“Like we did in the race to the moon, we believe our technology and scientific community are capable of making the impossible a reality when it comes to ending cancer,” he added.

However, political realities may hinder that ambitious goal. Congress has appropriated $25 billion for NASA through 2024, down 2% from the previous year and less than the White House expected.

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Rathmel of the National Cancer Institute is optimistic.

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“The capacity of space to capture the imagination is enormous,” he said. Space cancer research has a firm goal: “It saves lives.”

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