Right now, this instant, on Jan. 27, 2003, the space shuttle
Columbia is orbiting Earth at a speed of roughly 17,300 mph, 150
miles above the planet’s surface—and researchers from
the Winship Cancer Institute are using the shuttle as a “zero
gravity” laboratory to learn more about prostate cancer and
Leland Chung will be the first cancer investigator to grow a prostate
cancer “organoid,” or artificial tumor, in space. Launched
from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 16, the shuttle is carrying prostate
cancer cells and bone stroma (tissue framework) cells into space
in a NASA-engineered “bioreactor,” which recreates the
natural environment for tumor development and progression. The Columbia
is scheduled to return on Feb. 2.
Chung, professor of urology, is seeking to understand how prostate
cancer cells grow and communicate with other cells in the body.
He and his co-investigators at NASA also are studying how zero gravity
can be used as a tool to advance science, using the space shuttle
as a laboratory to study the behavior of prostate cancer cells in
An important goal of this experiment, Chung said, is to discover
relevant genes that may “turn on or turn off” during
the cascade of prostate cancer cells to the bone. “This study
may provide us with insight into novel genes of diagnostic or prognostic
value and may offer new targets for treatment of cancer metastasis,”
said Chung, who has conducted prostate cancer research with NASA
funding since 1995.
Increasingly, scientists are using zero gravity to create three-dimensional
organoids in order to study the interaction of cells within organisms.
Experi-ments in zero gravity have helped scientists understand development
of heart, bone, muscle, endocrine organs and the locomotion of inflammatory
cells and tumor cells.
“In space, we are able to create a ‘micro-environment’
that very closely resembles what happens at the cellular level in
our bodies,” Chung said. “Zero gravity provides the
opportunity to analyze the ‘cross talk’ between cells,
because they will grow under a low shearing force and they are not
in contact with other solids, including plastic or glass, which
can inhibit or modulate growth factors.”
Previous experiments indicate that, under these conditions, the
organoid may grow to a size not possible in Earth’s gravity.
Chung will use this three-dimensional organoid to better understand
the basic molecular process that occurs between cancer cells and
In addition to growing the organoid, investigators will recover
cells and media from the space flight for future behavioral, genetic
and gene expression studies back on earth.
Researchers will study prostate cancer cells’ ability to migrate,
invade and respond to hormones and drugs, and results will be compared
with prostate cancer specimens obtained from patients. Mahul Amin,
associate professor of pathology and urology, provided the clinical
cell samples for this experiment.
“We have to remember that cancer is not just a cell,”
Chung said, “it is an organ that is made up of cancer cells,
blood vessels, fibromuscular stroma, neural and inflammatory cells.
We don’t understand how cancer cells compartmentalize themselves
locally or why and when they metastasize. We are working to recreate
cancer in a microenvironment to better understand how it works.
Zero gravity provides us with an attractive opportunity in which
to do this.”
The combination of prostate cancer cells and healthy bone stroma
cells is important because of the high rate of bone metastasis among
prostate cancer patients. Nearly 90 percent of all terminal prostate
cancer patients have bone metastasis.