Might Small Space-Nurtured Organs Represent Our Bold Cancer Initiative?

Might Small Space-Nurtured Organs Represent Our Bold Cancer Initiative?

Key Takeaways:

  1. Space-grown Organoids: Scientists are cultivating organoids in space to gain insights into diseases like cancer and aging, utilizing unique conditions to accelerate research.
  2. Acceleration of Aging: The low gravity environment of space may accelerate aging in cells, offering a novel platform to study age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.
  3. Novel Drug Discoveries: Organoid research in space has led to promising discoveries, including potential new drugs for neurological diseases and cancer, showcasing the potential of space exploration for medical advancements.
  4. Dual Benefits: Beyond space exploration, findings from organoid research can benefit people on Earth, offering potential treatments for conditions like myelofibrosis and insights into renal physiology.
  5. Challenges and Opportunities: Despite logistical challenges, scientists remain optimistic about the potential of organoids in space, highlighting the importance of continued exploration and innovation.

Currently, scientists are cultivating “organoids” in space to delve into the complexities of cancer, neurological ailments, and aging, with the hope of unearthing viable treatments.

At present, in the expanse of space, scientists are nurturing diminutive, three-dimensional replicas of human organs. What may initially evoke imagery from the commencement of a science fiction narrative is, in actuality, a relatively nascent application of a realm of research that is already shattering the confines of discovery here on Earth.

From minuscule, pulsating cardiac structures to “miniature cerebral masses,” these so-dubbed organoids are typically cultured from human stem cells which, aided by a blend of growth catalysts, can be propelled to self-organize into three-dimensional configurations akin to human bodily tissues. Divergent from conventional animal models such as rodents or primates, organoids afford scientists a more precise emulation of the idiosyncratic complexities of human organs. Consequently, these diminutive organs hold the potential to expedite pharmaceutical development by elucidating which compounds truly exhibit efficacy in humans and which do not.

Describing organoid research as extraordinary would not be an exaggeration — in certain instances, quite literally so.

Since the year 2019, diminutive replicas of organs — encompassing the brain, heart, and mammary glands — have been cultured aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Nonetheless, this avenue of research begets a query: What impels scientists to cultivate miniature organs in the cosmic expanse?

Aging Organoids in Microgravity One rationale is that the austere conditions of space could furnish scientists with insights into aging and its associated afflictions that plague humans on Earth.

Alysson Muotri, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has been dispatching human stem cells to the ISS for years, with the objective of nurturing brain organoids that emulate various maladies. Ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease typically manifest over decades in an individual; however, studies intimate that the minimal gravitational force in space may expedite cellular aging. Consequently, by scrutinizing brain organoids in microgravity, scientists may discern the mechanisms underlying age-related alterations and devise interventions to forestall them.

Numerous methodologies for modeling the aging brain have entailed subjecting neurons to stress in laboratory receptacles, often by introducing specific chemical agents. Nonetheless, as Muotri elucidated to Live Science, these experiments fail to encapsulate the veritable course of aging within the body. “One does not experience a sudden cascade of molecules in the brain that precipitates aging overnight,” he remarked.

The impetus for the team’s organoid research stemmed from the NASA twins study, wherein astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a year-long sojourn in space while his identical twin sibling, Mark, remained grounded on Earth. Upon Scott’s return, he exhibited indications of heightened cognitive deterioration in contrast to his sibling; for instance, he struggled with assimilating and retaining information.

The rationale behind these observations remains enigmatic, Muotri noted. One conjecture posits that the diminution of gravitational force may curtail the activity of an enzyme known as telomerase, which aids in mitigating the natural erosion of DNA segments situated at the termini of our chromosomes as we age. These terminal segments of DNA, termed telomeres, are implicated in aging, and thus, some scholars postulate that elongating telomeres could combat aging and protract the human lifespan.

In an imminent publication, Muotri’s team will expound comprehensively on the behavior of brain organoids aboard the ISS — albeit from their preliminary findings, the organoids that have returned to Earth evince signs of accelerated aging, as Muotri affirmed. The brain organoids exhibit manifestations reminiscent of neurological maladies, such as degeneration and cellular duress, commonly observed across various conditions. This has afforded the researchers the opportunity to assess novel drug candidates for these maladies, yielding encouraging initial outcomes.

“The inaugural publication will delineate the debut drug discovered in space for a cerebral disorder,” Muotri disclosed. However, the precise date of publication remains undetermined.

Minute Tumors in Space The NASA twins study also inspired another research cohort from UCSD to cultivate organoids in space — albeit, instead of miniature brains, they focus on diminutive neoplasms. This endeavor is spearheaded by Dr. Catriona Jamieson, a professor of medicine.

Some of the brain organoids grown by Muotri’s lab in a dish. (Image credit: Muotri Lab/UC San Diego)

Upon his return to Earth, Scott Kelly evinced indications of diminished telomere length, DNA damage, and signaling molecules in his bloodstream known to activate specific genes conducive to the proliferation and metastasis of cancer. This suggests that the strenuous conditions of space may spur the growth of neoplastic tissue, thus offering a viable model for investigating the etiology of the disease.

The team initiated their venture by dispatching hematopoietic stem cells to space, and within a mere month, these cells exhibited the activation of genetic mutations associated with malignancy, culminating in aberrant proliferation and division.

Subsequently, the researchers dispatched an array of tumor organoid models encompassing leukemia, colorectal cancer, and breast cancer aboard the private Axiom Mission 1. Evidently, these models underwent “remarkable” proliferation whilst in transit. Moreover, the cells comprising the organoids activated a gene denoted ADAR1, encoding an enzyme believed to potentiate the propagation of cancer. In a distinct experiment, the team succeeded in demonstrating that two compounds which inhibit ADAR1 — fedratinib and rebecsinib — could attenuate the growth of the miniature tumors.

At present, as part of their most recent voyage to the ISS in January 2024, the team is assessing the anti-neoplastic potential of these compounds in additional breast cancer organoids.

“We are exceedingly gratified to collaborate with NASA in expediting the development of the world’s premier ADAR inhibitors, a diminutive molecular entity to be administered intravenously,” Jamieson remarked.

Scientists are growing organoids on the International Space Station, pictured above. (Image credit: NASA, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Prospects of Organoids in Space This endeavor is as much about safeguarding denizens of Earth as it is about aiding astronauts in space. Conceivably, in the future, individuals embarking on commercial space tourism could receive prophylactic medication to shield the hematopoietic stem cells in their bloodstream from malignant transformation. Meanwhile, back on terra firma, leveraging their findings from space, researchers are poised to commence clinical trials of rebecsinib later this year to target myelofibrosis, a hematological malignancy characterized by fibrotic alterations in the bone marrow.

Other researchers have seized upon the prospective dual dividends of extraterrestrial research endeavors. Among them is Catherine Yeung, an associate professor in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Washington, whose team is investigating the impact of the accelerated aging milieu in space on renal physiology.

Instead of organoids, Yeung’s team employs an alternate model of human tissue denoted an “organ-on-a-chip” apparatus. This technology emulates human tissues on diminutive devices akin to credit cards and is regarded as complementary to organoids.

“If insights gleaned from space can inform our approach to managing conditions on Earth, I believe that constitutes the overarching objective — there is no imperative to elect between the two,” Yeung articulated to Live Science.

Cultivating organoids aboard the ISS diverges significantly from terrestrial methodologies, as Muotri elucidated. For instance, constraints are imposed by the quantity of laboratory equipment that can be accommodated, and there’s always the looming specter of a last-minute cancellation of the rocket launch. Additionally, the return journey for the organoids poses considerable risks, as Jamieson underscored, with the payload often descending into the ocean.

Notwithstanding these challenges, experts are optimistic about the potential of organoids to chart new frontiers of discovery.

“I am invigorated by the prospect of conducting research in space,” Jamieson enthused. “I perceive this as a literal crusade against cancer, and we have uncovered a mechanism to halt its progression.”

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