From Rockets to Radiology: How NASA Boosts Cancer Research

Andrew D. Smith
Published: Wednesday, Apr 27, 2011
Since then, 5 Barton programmers have been hunched over their computers while Walker’s family and friends have spent about $1.5 million funding the operation.

Much remains to be finished, particularly software for 3D images, but Bartron has won its first commercial victory. In July, the FDA approved the company’s application to market MED-SEG™ for storing medical images for hospitals and other clients. Now Barton can earn revenue while it runs the tests needed to see whether its technology advances doctors’ ability to read mammograms and other images.

“It will probably take me 2 years to complete the tests that will demonstrate this to the FDA’s satisfaction, but from what I’ve seen, I believe this technology will improve radiologist interpretive skill anywhere from 27% to 67%,” said Walker, who is working with researchers at the University of Connecticut on diagnostic testing. “Machines can simply analyze these images in ways that human eyes cannot.”

Entrepreneur Fitz G. Walker Jr
Entrepreneur Fitz G. Walker Jr is partnering with NASA.

New Environment for Tumor Testing

Imaging technology isn’t the only area where NASA has contributed to oncology. The sheer volume of NASA research generates a steady stream of gizmos that fi nd unexpected uses in every conceivable corner of the world, including medical research.

A device that NASA developed decades ago to study the effect of low gravity on living tissue, for example, may help earthbound humans fight cancer and other diseases.

NASA’s microgravity bioreactor is a cylindrical container that uses a complex rotating movement to simulate a low-gravity environment. To the untrained eye, it looks like a next-generation rotisserie cooker. To researchers, it looks like an ideal place for growing tumors and other kinds of cells.

Lab-grown tumors have traditionally borne little resemblance to cancers that develop inside animals. They grow slowly and come out flat as pancakes, which limits their practical use.

Tumors grown in NASA bioreactors, on the other hand, grow many times faster and develop normal 3D structures.

The structural changes entice researchers for obvious reasons. The greater the resemblance between lab-grown tumors and their human counterparts, the more researchers should be able to learn from experimenting with the tumors they create.

And the faster those tumors grow in labs, the easier it will be for researchers to test new theories.

NASA began using its bioreactor to study tumors about 15 years ago and brought a handful of academic researchers into the project several years after that. Such devices are currently spinning away at more than 100 labs, growing countless tissue types that range from cancerous tumors to the stem cells that may someday treat them.

NASA, meanwhile, has moved from terrestrial bioreactors to devices designed for use aboard the International Space Station. The machine and the environment combine to reduce gravity further and spur some cultures to grow at incredible rates.

Experiments that could take months on Earth can take just hours on a bioreactor orbiting 220 miles above the ground, a difference so profound that NASA believes it will be cost-efficient to do many experiments in space, despite the expense of blasting materials there.

Studying Nanotubes for Immunotherapy

As astronauts up there continue to explore microgravity’s unexpected effects on culture growth, researchers down here hope they’ve found an even more unexpected use for some very tiny technology.

Scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, began building microscopic particles called carbon nanotubes for several mechanical purposes.

Mammogram images before and after MED-SEG processing
Mammogram image before MED-SEG processing, left, and afterward, right.
Oncologists at a nearby hospital got wind of the project and saw the opportunity to test an idea for using minuscule particles to fight glioblastoma, the most prevalent and the most deadly form of malignant brain tumor. Glioblastoma attacked roughly 36,000 Americans from 2004-2007, with 5-year survival rates ranging from 20% to <1 year depending upon age at diagnosis, according to the most recent National Cancer Institute report (J Natl Cancer Inst. 2011;103:1-23).

Researchers at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California, saw a possible immunotherapy strategy for these tumors in nanotubes.

They figured they could bind the drugs they were using to carbon nanotubes and inject small doses of the resulting mixture right around cancer sites. The nanotubes, they hoped, would increase the initial immune response and keep the injected materials near the cancers far longer—giving the immune system time to develop a specific defense against the cancer.

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