At a Glance
- Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and approximately 589,000 people in the U.S. die from cancer each year.
- Researchers from companies, academic institutions, and other government agencies are leveraging the unique platform of the ISS National Lab to advance cancer research.
- ISS National Lab cancer research includes studies to cultivate clinical-grade stem cells for therapeutic applications, crystallize proteins for improved drug discovery and delivery, and test new therapies that may work better or have fewer side effects.
- Other cancer-related projects seek to improve 3D cell culturing methods for higher-accuracy drug testing and to reduce the failure rate of current drug discovery efforts.
October often brings to mind pumpkins, fall weather, and Halloween fun—but October is also a time to “think pink” in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Although breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, there are more than 100 different types of cancer.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. and is expected to surpass heart disease as the leading killer by 2030. Approximately 200 million people globally (16 million in the U.S.) are currently living with cancer and 8.2 million globally (589,000 in the U.S.) die from cancer annually.
The International Space Station (ISS) National Lab is a unique research platform available to U.S. researchers from small companies, Fortune 500 companies, research institutions, government agencies, and others—all interested in leveraging microgravity to address complex problems on Earth, such as cancer. Within the life sciences portfolio of the ISS National Lab, a substantial number of projects focus on cancer-related research.
For example, cultivating clinical-grade stem cells for therapeutic applications in humans—the aim of an ISS National Lab investigation by the Mayo Clinic—may improve our understanding of cancer resistance to chemotherapy and could set the stage for developing therapies targeted toward cancer eradication. Additionally, numerous protein crystallization studies are taking their ground-based efforts to the ISS National Lab, seeking larger and more uniform crystals to better visualize new drugs to control cancer growth and improve both drug discovery and delivery methods. Protein crystallization in terrestrial laboratories often produces smaller, less uniform crystals that make interpretation of their molecular structures difficult.
The unique environment of space also provides an environment conducive to studying the effectiveness of existing drugs historically used to treat other diseases against specific cancer types and provides an ideal setting to test new drug therapies with the potential to decrease drug development and medicinal costs. The failure of new drug entities (i.e., upon reaching the preclinical or clinical trial testing phases) is greater than 50%. This represents an expensive burden for both consumers and companies. Economic models suggest that a mere 10% improvement in failure prediction rates prior to enacting clinical trials could save $100 million in development costs per drug.
An ISS National Lab project from 490 Biotech, Inc., looks to utilize a novel bioluminescent assay tool kit that may significantly reduce the failure rate of current drug discovery efforts. This investigation will speciﬁcally examine anti-cancer therapeutics with downstream applications to other drugs. Additionally, if validated, the tool kit should have a high impact on the estimated $12 billion market for this technology. Learn more about this investigation in the video below.
In addition, current ISS National Lab research efforts seek to reduce the side effects of cancer drugs and improve 3D cell culturing, which may improve drug testing and inform future cancer research activities. Oncolinx Pharmaceuticals, LLC is using the ISS to test a new type of cancer fighting drug in 3D cell cultures in an investigation funded in part by Boeing through the MassChallenge Startup Accelerator. Oncolinx’s antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) consist of Azonafide cytotoxin, a novel immune-activating cancer drug developed at the National Cancer Institute, attached to antibodies that specifically target cancer cells, potentially increasing effectiveness and reducing side effects. Another investigation by Nano3D Biosciences, Inc. is aimed at incorporating magnetic cell culture technology into existing flight hardware. Such technology paves the way for using magnetic nanoparticles and magnetic fields for improved 3D cell culture on the ISS. Learn more about these investigations in this Upward spotlight article.
An investigation by Angiex, Inc., also funded in part by Boeing through the MassChallenge Startup Accelerator, is testing a cancer therapy that targets both tumor cells and tumor blood vessels. For tumors to grow, nearly all cancer requires growth of new blood vessels, so this drug treatment could potentially treat more than 90% of all cancer types. NASA Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, MD, recorded a short video in orbit about the project. Learn more about this investigation in this ISS360 article and in the video above.
The ISS National Lab and Boeing recently announced the recipients of the 2018 “Technology in Space” award, a competition held in partnership with the MassChallenge (Boston) startup accelerator, and all three awarded projects are focused on cancer research. An investigation by Kernal Biologics, Inc. will screen oncoselective messenger RNAs for leukemia immunotherapy. In addition to destroying cancer cells, such drugs may also be capable of differentiating between cancer cells and healthy cells. MicroQuin was awarded two projects—one aiming to crystallize a protein involved in tumor formation and cancer survival and one that aims to develop and study complex 3D models of human breast and prostate tumors. Read more in this ISS360 article.