Approximately 346 kilometers away aboard the International Space Station (ISS), several types of medical research are ongoing as more scientists find that space offers new perspective on Earthly disorders. For example, zero gravity’s effects on astronauts' skeletal systems are used to learn how to help patients with muscle-wasting diseases.

Below are three examples of how space and space technology are giving a boost in medical research.

1. Using space technology in breast cancer research

Space technology is finding alternative use in breast cancer research as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is collaborating with surgeon Dr Susan Love, chief visionary officer for Dr Susan Love Research Foundation in America, to understand the microbiome of milk ducts, since almost all breast cancers are found to originate from there.

Initially, the study faced a hurdle - antiseptic used to clean breast cancer patients’ skin was contaminated with dead microbes.

“It was hard to figure out what were the important bacteria versus what was just noise and contamination,” Love said.

Equipment at JPL are able to analyse very tiny concentrations of microorganisms to ensure NASA spacecrafts carry as little Earth bacteria as possible, which Love realised would be useful in her research.

Using JPL’s equipment, Love analysed the breast ductal fluid from 23 healthy women and 25 women who had suffered from breast cancer. They discovered that a distinct microbiome does exist and is different between the two groups, although the implications are still unclear.

The breast ductal system was also mapped for the first time since 1840 using space technology, as regular 3D medical ultrasounds could not capture the ducts. In addition, with JPL’s radar-mapping technology originally used to map complex and foreign planets, Love hopes this will lead to more precise cancer surgeries.

2. Keeping ahead of mutations in superbugs

The space travel company SpaceX is also pulling its weight in aiding medical discoveries. The antibiotic-resistant MRSA was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket to the ISS as it is believed that the bacteria’s growth accelerates in zero gravity conditions.

The project led by doctor and physicist Anita Goel, aims to use microgravity’s ability to fast-track growth and therefore mutations to study these mutations and design drugs for them. Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats that face the world today.

“We can have those drugs ready before the mutations even show up on Earth,” Goel says.

Previous research shows that growth, mutation and population trends are the same as on Earth, at an accelerated rate. A 2000 experiment found that after 40 days in space, mutation rates of a bacterial gene were up to three times higher than the control group on Earth.

In 2015, Goel’s company Nanobiosym developed a diagnostic device called Gene-RADAR, which will be used on the ISS to evaluate the mutation of two strains of MRSA.

“Our ability to anticipate drug-resistant mutations with Gene-RADAR will lead to next generation antibiotics that are more precisely tailored to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous pathogens,” says Goel.

3. Cultivating stem cells in space

SpaceX also took up vials of cardiac progenitor cells for a month-long stay aboard the ISS.

Transplant immunologist Mary Kearns-Jonker of Loma Linda University in California has been experimenting with simulated microgravity on cardiac progenitor cells. It was discovered that the cells from neonates proliferate better and are more stem-like, which can be studied to understand ageing.

“They back up a little bit to go forward more efficiently,” she explained, adding that microgravity can also kick-start genetic pathways during tissue regeneration.

Space also has therapeutic potential as Abba Zubair, a stem cell researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Florida’s research suggests. Zubair is sending stem cells to grow and cultivate in the ISS for clinical trials back on Earth.

Earlier evidence showed that cells in space grew healthier, faster and possessed none of the imperfections that Earth-grown stem cells did, as microgravity resembles the weightless buoyancy of a womb, which is the optimal environment for stem cell culture.

Zubair now plans to send mesenchymal stem cells up to see if they can be used to treat stroke patients. On Earth, 100 to 200 million stem cells are needed to treat a patient and can take weeks to cultivate, by which time it may be too late. He hopes that space can help produce stem cells in the quantities needed in therapy. MIMS

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