Among the millions of Americans who grieved the loss of the space shuttle Columbia February 1 was Emory scientist Leland Chung, who watched in shock as the shuttle broke apart in the sky over Texas.

But Chung (above), professor of urology and a researcher at the Winship Cancer Institute, mourned the tragedy all the more deeply because the shuttle carried an experiment of his own design: he was the first scientist to grow artificial prostate cancer cells in space.

One of eighty-four scientific experiments aboard Columbia, Chung’s project involved a prostate cancer “organoid,” or artificial tumor, grown at zero gravity in a NASA-engineered bioreactor. The gravity-free environment made it possible to nearly recreate the cancer’s natural conditions in the body, a task much more difficult in the laboratory, where contact with glass or plastic can alter growth. Chung planned to study the organoid to better understand how prostate cancer cells grow and communicate with other cells in the body.

The mass on Columbia had grown to about the size of a golf ball, many times larger than similar tumors grown in the Earth’s gravity. But Chung’s hopes of completing the experiment were shattered when the shuttle crashed. Much more devastating, he had communicated many times with the Columbia astronauts via e-mail, and felt he knew them. “They wanted to understand the study and were very excited about it,” Chung says.

Without the cell mass, Chung hopes to salvage about half his project, and will dedicate any findings to the Columbia astronauts.

As the strewn parts of the shuttle and its scientific cargo were recovered, Chung released a heartfelt statement to the Emory community and his colleagues at NASA.

“Our prayers go to the families of our courageous and dedicated astronauts,” he wrote. “Our goal is to pick up everything left unfinished by the astronauts and to finish the experiments and future studies to the best of our ability. We want to dedicate every paper . . . to our partner astronauts. May God bless America, and our dreams of discovery and innovation will always have a place with our NASA family.”–P.P.P.



© 2003 Emory University