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Denmark sends cancer cells to the International Space Station

For the first time, Denmark is sending human cells to the International Space Station ISS with an American spacecraft that blasts into space on 14 April 2014 with cancer cells on board. The aim is to examine the reaction of the cancer cells to weightlessness as this can contribute important new knowledge to the treatment of cancer. NB THE LAUNCH IS POSTPONED UNTIL FRIDAY 18 APRIL.

The Falcon 9 Rocket that will carry the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. Photo: SpaceX
The Falcon 9 Rocket that will carry the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. Photo: SpaceX

The cure for cancer might be hidden in space. This is why NASA’s next visit to the International Space Station ISS is not only bringing supplies for the astronauts aboard ISS, but also approximately six million cancer cells from a patient with aggressive thyroid cancer. They are being sent by Daniela Grimm from Aarhus University, one of Denmark’s few professors in space medicine. The experiment represents a major step for Danish space research and, at the same time, the culmination of several years of research into how cells react to weightlessness.

Cancer cells kill themselves in space

Weightlessness causes our cells to behave differently than when they are subject to the effects of gravity, and this fact is significant for cancer research. Cells are naturally programmed to kill themselves, but cancer cells actually avoid committing this “suicide”. Instead, they divide themselves more, meaning that the cancer spreads. But the cancer cells behave differently when exposed to weightlessness. Previous studies have shown that 30 percent more cancer cells die in weightlessness compared to when they are under the effects of gravity.

“The time the cells spend in space should help us to understand the mechanism that activates cell death under weightlessness. We know that it is triggered by proteins, but we lack knowledge about which ones. If we can discover this that knowledge can be used to develop new pharmaceuticals for cancer treatment,” says Daniela Grimm, professor in space medicine from Aarhus University.

Weightlessness also makes it possible to study the cells more thoroughly. During weightlessness the cells spontaneously form three-dimensional structures that are reminiscent of the body’s natural growth pattern. This means they better resemble the body’s cells when they are located in space rather than on Earth. Weightlessness thus makes it possible to obtain more valid research results.

Splashdown in the Pacific Ocean

After a month’s stay in space during which the unmanned spacecraft will be coupled with ISS, the cells will be returned in a capsule that will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. Only then can the researchers begin examining the cells.

The results are expected to be ready in around a year. 

Follow the launch

  • The preparations and launch can be followed on the Cells in space blog.
  • NASA broadcast the launch live on Monday 14 April from 9.45 p.m. Danish time and it can be seen here.

About the research experiment

  • The American spaceship SpaceX Dragon will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, USA on 14 April, 2014 at 10.58 p.m. Danish time. If bad weather or the like should prevent the launch, the next launch opportunity will be Friday, April 18 approx. 9.25 p.m.
  • The spacecraft will dock with the International Space Station ISS 1-3 days after launch.
  • During the entire mission the cells will be placed in small cultivation chambers. They will be sent back to Earth after 30 days. 
  • The research group has previously had cancer cells on board the Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou 8 in 2011. The new experiment builds on the results from here.
  • The research is being conducted in collaboration with a German team of researchers from Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg in Germany.
  • The experiment is being carried out in close collaboration with the German space agency DLR, as well as the companies Astrium and Nanoracks, who have supplied equipment for the project.
  • The experiment is financed by DLR while NASA is financing the SpaceX mission.

Further information

Associate Professor Thomas J. Corydon
Aarhus University, Department of Biomedicine
Direct tel: +45 8716 7775
Mobile: +45 2899 2179