An Embry-Riddle research project tests how T-cells change in space.
Around noon on Dec. 12, New Shepard, a reusable rocket developed by Blue Origin for the space tourism market, took off from the company’s launch pad in west Texas. The rocket didn’t carry tourists, but its payload did include 12 tubes of T-cells taken from mice and grown in a lab for a research project conducted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach in conjunction with the University of Texas Health Science Center and the Medical University of South Carolina.
T-cells develop from stem cells in bone marrow and play an important role in the body’s immune systems. T-cell therapy, in which a patient’s own T-cells are reprogrammed to attack tumors, is seen as one of the most promising potential treatments for cancer.
The suborbital space flight exposed the Embry-Riddle T-cells to nearly 4 minutes of microgravity, in hopes of giving researchers better insight into how microgravity may change T-cells. Microgravity more closely mimics the physiological conditions inside a human body than do conditions in a lab. Pedro Llanos, an Embry-Riddle assistant professor of Spaceflight Operations and principal investigator on the T-cell research, says his team is still evaluating the data collected from the flight. But the team says it has already seen evidence of changes in some subsets of T-cells compared with the control sample.
The next step, the researchers say, will to be to see if they can replicate the results of the first experiment. Eventually, they hope to get actual mice with the T-cells in them onto the International Space Station to test the effects of microgravity over a longer period.
Dr. Carolyn D. Runowicz and Sakhrat Khizroev / FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine
Ovarian cancer is particularly frustrating because while 80% of patients initially respond to treatment, the 10- year survival rate is only about 20%. In part, that’s because it’s difficult to target treatment inside the peritoneal cavity, says Dr. Carolyn D. Runowicz, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and executive associate dean for academic affairs at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. But when she learned that FIU researchers had gotten remotely controlled magneto-electric nanoparticles to cross the blood-brain barrier, she saw a way into the peritoneal cavity. She shared her idea with the researchers, led by Sakhrat Khizroev, a professor of electrical engineering and cellular biology who is director of FIU’s Center for Personalized Nanomedicine. Khizroev “figured out how to attach the nanoparticle to Taxol, which is very active in ovarian cancer,” Runowicz says.
“It means we can see a tumor without really getting inside the body,” explains Khizroev. “We can kill it wherever and whenever we want.”
The treatment has been successful in animal testing. Human trials are at least five years away. — Rochelle Broder-Singer
Cancer Rates in Florida
- Breast: 114.8 cases per 100,000 people
- Prostate: 83.1
- Lung and bronchus: 57.0
- Colon and rectum: 35.4
- Corpus and uterus: 24.0
- Melanomas of the skin: 23.2
- Urinary bladder: 17.9
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: 16.7
- Kidney and renal pelvis: 13.6
- Oral cavity and pharynx: 13.3
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014