Microgravity, stem cells and cancer: IIT Madras takes a new approach to finding a treatment for cancer
Imagine a chamber on a spaceship. It’s been built with low or microgravity so that astronauts who are thousands of miles away from earth don’t lose muscle mass. Now imagine that instead of astronauts, cancer cells are floating around in this chamber.
This isn’t a scenario from one of George R.R. Martin’s early sci-fi stories. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras recently did something like this, to change cancer cells into cancer stem cells. The reason: this could be the first step in a long chain of steps to cure cancer.
What is cancer?
Starting as a glitch in healthy cells, cancer cells can quickly take over and spread to the adjoining tissues, suffocating the body by competing for its own resources.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer is the second-largest cause of mortality in the world with an estimated 9.6 million deaths in the year 2018 alone.
What makes this disease even more dangerous is its unpredictability and recurrence rate—it can range from 7% to 100%, depending on the type of cancer. Though early diagnosis and treatment and understanding of risk factors have decreased the total mortality associated with cancer, a definitive cure for cancer is still a pie in the sky.
What’s the problem?
Dr. Ross L. Cagen, a professor in the department of development and regenerative biology and director of the Center for Personalised Cancer Therapeutics, explained the current problems in cancer cell therapeutics in his paper 'Rethinking cancer: current challenges and opportunities in cancer research'. He wrote, “This disease (cancer) is deeply embedded with our own biology, which makes it really difficult to deal with it without interfering with the normal body functioning… It is time to think outside the box and combine researches in unrelated fields to find a cure that would help medical practitioners all over the world to save more lives.”
Fortuitously, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras have done just this by combining space sciences with biology to find out something that might be a stepping stone for a novel cancer treatment.
A research team led by Dr. Rama Shankar Verma, a professor at IIT Madras, has been successful in isolating cancer stem cells by growing colorectal cancer cells in a microgravity environment.
Cancer stem cells are a specific type of cancer cells. They make up less than 1% of total cells in tumours. Just like normal stem cells, cancer stem cells are undifferentiated and have the capability of self-renewal—they form tumours when introduced into a healthy host. In other words, cancer stem cells have the ability to regenerate on their own, even from a single cell. These cells are not only responsible for metastasis—that is, spreading by travelling to adjacent tissues—but they are also a major reason why cancer recurs in some patients and why some people develop resistance to cancer therapies.
According to researchers at the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine at Stanford University, treating cancer without removing cancer stem cells is like partially weeding a field.
Various studies have been done in the past to identify and target cancer stem cells, specifically for the treatment of cancer, though most of these trials were done with lab animals.
What sets Dr. Rama’s research apart is that his team used cell cultures. In their study, the crew exposed colorectal cancer cells to microgravity environment—the low gravity environment of space—and found that though the environment kills tumour cells, when brought into the natural environment, it led to the formation of polyploid cancer stem cells with the specific markers C133/C44.
Microgravity has previously been used by NASA for stem-cell regeneration in space. Though the NASA experiment was to find ways to reduce muscle loss in astronauts, the process that helps convert normal tissue cells to stem cells in low gravity conditions has almost the same effect of turning cancer cells into cancer stem cells.
Though a long way from curing cancer, the IIT study is a promising beginning that may eventually culminate in a molecular approach to understanding the growth and replication of cancer cells and finding easier and cost-effective ways to eradicate this disease from the root.
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Updated Date: Aug 26, 2019 13:30:05 IST
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