Brain tumour cells to be sent into space in pioneering study

Scientists will send live cancer cells to ISS in effort to find more effective treatments

Cancer cells will be heading to space so scientists can understand more about an incurable childhood tumour. PA
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UK scientists are sending samples of diffuse midline glioma, a brain tumour that usually manifests during childhood, to the International Space Station.

The aim of the study, called D(MG)2, is to understand how the tumour spreads in microgravity, which could pave the way for new ways to disrupt growth.

Diffuse midline glioma is an aggressive and incurable brain tumour that most commonly presents in children. It has a poor prognosis, with most children dying within 18 months of diagnosis.

The disease led to the death of Karen Armstrong, daughter of late US astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research in London believe that conducting experiments in microgravity will allow their 3D cultures to grow to much larger sizes than on Earth.

This will enable them to create bigger, more extensive models through which they will be able to study how cancer cells interact, as this interaction is thought to drive growth.

While microgravity can be recreated on Earth, the conditions can induce some mechanical stress on the cells, which may change how they behave.

Chris Jones, leader of the D(MG)2 study and professor of childhood cancer biology at the Institute of Cancer Research, said that sending the cells to the ISS will enhance comprehension of how they function.

“Hopefully this will lead to new ideas for disrupting tumour growth that we can take forward back in the lab,” he said.

The study has received £1.2 million from the government, while another study, MicroAge II, led by the University of Liverpool, was awarded £1.4 million.

MicroAge II is currently investigating how the microgravity environment weakens astronauts’ muscles in space.

The launch of the experiments is expected to take place in 2025, with samples returning to Earth about six months later. The experiments will be conducted by astronauts on board the ISS.

George Freeman, minister of state at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said that British scientists and astronauts are utilising the ISS as a cutting-edge research platform for nutrition, energy and biomedicine, exploiting space's potential as the ultimate laboratory test bed.

“This £2.6 million project funding will help UK scientists research how to prevent brain tumours in children, and understand the biomedical processes of ageing: research with huge benefits for mankind and health systems around the world,” Mr Freeman said.

Kristian Helin, chief executive at the Institute of Cancer Research, said that while taking the cells to space might seem like a far-fetched idea, this experiment has the potential to provide crucial new understanding into the development of diffuse midline glioma.

“It’s a pleasure to be working in a collaboration that spans boundaries between different areas of expertise, different scientific fields — and even the boundary that separates Earth from space,” he said.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 12:01 AM

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