Cancer cells will be sent to space in an effort to learn more about an incurable childhood tumour.
Scientists from The Institute Of Cancer Research are sending samples of diffuse midline glioma to the International Space Station to see how it spreads in microgravity.
Diffuse midline glioma is an aggressive and incurable brain tumour that is most common in children, and most sufferers die within 18 months of being diagnosed.
Surgery is usually not an option, because the cancer is in crucial parts of the brain, and chemotherapy has little effect. Radiotherapy is the only treatment, and it is only used palliatively.
Among the disease’s victims was Karen Armstrong, daughter of the late US astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon in 1969.
Chris Jones, leader of the D(MG)2 study and professor of Childhood Cancer Biology at The Institute Of Cancer Research in London, said: “Unfortunately, survival rates for patients with diffuse midline glioma have not changed substantially since Neil Armstrong’s daughter died of the disease in the early 1960s.
“The last 15 years, however, have revolutionised our understanding of the biological complexity of these tumours, with exciting potential new therapies entering clinical trial at last.
“Experiments such as D(MG)2 aboard the International Space Station will improve our understanding of how cancer cells interact with each other within three-dimensional structures, and hopefully lead to new ideas for disrupting tumour growth that we can take forward back in the lab.”
The researchers believe that microgravity will allow their 3D cultures to grow to a much larger size than on Earth, allowing much larger models to use as a study into how cancer cells interact.
Microgravity can be recreated on Earth but Prof Jones said the conditions “can induce some mechanical stress on the cells which may change how they behave – which we want to avoid”.
The study has received £1.2m from the UK government.
Meanwhile, another space-related study – led by the University of Liverpool – was awarded £1.4m.
MicroAge II is examining how microgravity weakens astronauts’ muscles in space.
George Freeman, minister of state at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said: “Space is the ultimate laboratory testbed with British scientists and astronauts harnessing the International Space Station for cutting edge research in nutrition, energy and biomedicine.
“This £2.6m 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.”
Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “This ground-breaking research highlights the power of space to push through barriers, revolutionise science and enhance our lives.
“Through a combination of national funding and our vital role in the European Space Agency, we’re ensuring UK scientists have access to the unique environment of the ISS for their research, which will benefit us all.”