University of Technology Sydney (UTS) lecturer Joshua Chou is taking cancer research out of this world.
Chou, the Director of Biomedical Engineering at UTS, hopes to soon lead a research mission to the International Space Station to test the effect of microgravity on the sensing receptors of cancer cells.
Inspired by his previous work at Harvard, where he helped develop anti-osteoporotic drugs, when Chou returned to Australia in 2017 he turned his attention to other diseases.
“At Harvard I was part of a project where we looked at how to prevent astronauts losing bone by basically tricking the bone cells into thinking that the body is exercising when it’s really not,” Chou told create.
“Then, when I came back to Australia, I thought, ‘How can we apply the same strategy to cancer?’
“Everyone understands that for cancer cells to form a tumour, there must be some mechanism of sensing between the cancer cells. But no one has been able to really identify what that mechanism is.
“My [question] was: in a zero gravity or microgravity environment, will a cancer cell’s sensing receptors be turned off? And if so, does it affect their ability to form a tumour? That’s how it really started.”
Keen to test out his theory, Chou enlisted a recent engineering graduate from UTS to create Australia’s first microgravity device; a container the size of a tissue box that spins on an axis, which he used to study the effect of microgravity on cancer cells.
The results were out of this world.
“We put one or two cancer cells in there and after 24 hours they started dying,” Chou said.
“Once we saw that we put in different types of cancer cells, and we saw the same pattern … 80 to 90 per cent of the cells in the four different cancer types we tested [ovarian, breast, nose and lung] were disabled.
“This signifies that there’s some kind of fundamental survival mechanism preserved amongst the cancers. That’s really good because it means we can potentially target these basic survival mechanisms or instincts and try to disrupt them.”
Funded by UTS to expand their research, Chou and his team aim to fly to SpaceX in the United States, from where they plan to launch a mission to the International Space Station.
“The simulator we developed gets as close to zero gravity as terrestrially possible, but by going into real space we’ll be able to see if there’s something that we missed in terms of the response,” Chou said.
“We’ll be able to see if there are other receptors that can be switched off [in space], which couldn’t be switched off during our initial study due to the residual gravity on Earth.”
During the seven-day experiment, the team will be stationed at the launch site, where they will observe a data feed and conduct live-cell imaging. The cells will then be frozen and preserved for their return trip back to Earth, where the team will continue to examine any genetic changes.
If the mission is successful, the next step will be to screen existing drugs.
“I don’t want to develop new drugs, that takes a very long time and is not very practical,” Chou said.
“But there are methods of approach by which we can recycle or refurbish existing drugs to combat cancers.”
Chou pointed to a recent study, published by the Broad Institute, whereby researchers tested more than 4500 existing drug compounds – previously used to treat conditions such as diabetes and arthritis – for anti-cancer activity. Nearly 50 additional drugs were found to kill cancer cells, suggesting existing drugs could prove useful in the fight against cancer.
“If the mission is successful and we identify a couple more receptors, I’d like to screen existing drugs or pharmaceutics and see whether we can replicate that [zero gravity] effect,” he said.
“If we can disrupt their ability to function by 10 or 20 per cent, then current therapies or drugs can be more effective.”
Chou’s mission is an exciting one, but he said he is driven by the desire to make a difference.
“As I age, more people around me are getting cancer. For me, it’s about doing something that can one day contribute to something that has clinical relevance,” he said.
“We only live once, so I want to make the most of the mileage.”