Stem cells on space

Cancer drugs to be tested in orbit during space mission

Image credit: Dreamstime and Canva

The space experiments will test whether certain medications can slow the regeneration process of leukaemia, breast cancer and colorectal cancer cells in space.

The cells were launched into the International Space Station (ISS) via the second Axiom Space Private Astronaut Mission, Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2).

The experiments, conducted by a team at the University of California San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute, aim to expand the scientists' understanding of human stem cell ageing, inflammation and cancer in low-Earth orbit.

During the first Axiom Mission, in 2021, the team discovered that cancer stem cells regenerate more easily and become more resistant to standard therapies in low-Earth orbit, due to the microgravity conditions. 

Two enzymes that edit DNA and RNA (APOBEC3C and ADAR1) were found to activate themselves in a significant way during space stays, increasing cancer proliferation and immune evasion.

In this new mission, the team will test two ADAR1 inhibitors (Fedratinib and Rebecsinib) to see if the drugs can reverse this regeneration process for leukaemia, breast cancer and colorectal cancer cells.

In addition, the scientists will also track the health of astronauts’ blood stem cells before, during and after the trip, as well as at regular check-ups for up to five years after, to analyse the long-lasting impact of space missions. 

Researchers at the UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute evaluate cell samples after they have returned from low Earth orbit.

Researchers at the UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute evaluate cell samples after they have returned from low Earth orbit. / UC San Diego Health Sciences

Image credit: UC San Diego Health Sciences

The experiments will take place over the next 10 days in orbit, with further analyses being conducted at UC San Diego once the data has been collected. 

“Space is a uniquely stressful environment,” said Professor Catriona Jamieson, director of the Sanford Stem Cell Institute. “By conducting these experiments in low-Earth orbit, we are able to understand mechanisms of cancer evolution in a compressed time frame and inform the development of new cancer stem cell inhibitory strategies.”

Once the results of the tests are analysed, the team of scientists aims to use the findings to develop predictive models for cancer and immune dysfunction-related diseases. This could lead to the development of new drugs that could be used to prevent and treat these conditions during space exploration and on Earth.

“Our mission is to improve life on Earth and foster the possibilities beyond by building and operating the world’s first commercial space station," said Christian Maender, executive vice president of in-space solutions at Axiom Space. "Together with the Sanford Stem Cell Institute team, we are building history.” 

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