The China Space Station is ready to undertake research projects around 2022.  It will include an advanced cancer research project called “Tumours in Space.” A Canadian origin Norway researcher will head it. The project will explore the functions of both microgravity and cosmic radiation in tumour growth and development.

The project is one of just nine chosen by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) to accommodate scientists from all over the globe with the chance to fly experiments on the CSS. Only one among the nine selected projects will be headed by a woman.

“The idea is to transmit three-dimensional stem cell organoids from both healthy and cancer tissue from the same body into space. Here we will examine mutations and look at how the cell’s DNA is altered by weightlessness and cosmic radiation,” says Tricia L. Larose, Principal Investigator for the Tumours in Space project.

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Artist’s view of the process of growing organoids from adult intestinal stem cells: Illustration: Courtesy Hans Clevers

“At UNOOSA, we are happy with our cooperation with the China Manned Space Agency. It will make it plausible for such an interesting experiment to be administered onboard the CSS,” said Simonetta Di Pippo, UNOOSA Director. “Space is continually opening up new boundaries for humanity to progress, as illustrated by this project. It aims to find novel approaches to reduce tumours, one of the chief killers of our time.”

Weightless tumours

The research will rely on three-dimensional cancerous tumours, called organoids. These organoids are produced from adult human stem cells. These are a kind of cell that can divide endlessly and create distinct types of cells in doing so. Researchers have developed their ability to grow organoids, so they form tiny structures that simulate different organs.

The 3D organoids that will be utilised in the project present better information. They have features of the organs that they have been created to mimic.

Earlier cancer research that has been directed in space has adopted simpler 2D cells, which give researchers only restricted data. The 3D organoids that will be utilised in the project present better information. They have features of the organs that they have been created to mimic.

Larose hypothesizes that the cancer organoid growth will slow or stop when they are not influenced by Earth’s gravity. Previous research on two-dimensional cells has revealed that weightlessness controls gene expression linked to tumour development.

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Identifying cancer cell noise

Mutations in cancer cells transmit a kind of fingerprint in the DNA of the cells called a mutational signature; each type of cancer has its own.

“When we look at mutational signatures in cancer cells, there is a lot of ‘noise’. The turbulence is something we do not know a lot about,” says Larose. “Part of my experimental method is identifying new causes of that noise, and some of that might be gravity.”

Her theory is that some unknown “noise” in the cancer cells is there as a consequence of gravity. Since healthy cells and cells with cancer are affected by gravity, the researchers should be able to identify this in the fingerprints in all our cells.

Larose’s studies of cosmic radiation will also assist with solving the cancer hazard for astronauts on long-duration missions in the space station

Larose’s studies of cosmic radiation will also assist with solving the cancer hazard for astronauts on long-duration missions in the space station

Only female principal investigator

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and the China Manned Space Agency chose just nine projects from 42 aspirants from 27 different nations. As one of the nine selected projects, Tumours in Space, is the only project with a female principal researcher.

“We are proud to be shouldering a female scientist to manage this project. Our office also concentrates on developing the partnership of women in the space sector and STEM sectors more extensively,” UNOOSA Director said.

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Image- China Manned Space Agency

Saumya Rastogi is an intern with SheThePeople.TV

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