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January 13, 2003


Winship Urologist First to Grow Cancer "Organoid" in Space

Researchers at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute will use the next NASA space shuttle as a "zero gravity" laboratory to learn more about prostate cancer and bone metastasis.

Leland Chung, PhD, will be the first cancer investigator to grow a prostate cancer "organoid," or artificial tumor, in space. The space shuttle, scheduled for launch on January 16, 2003, will carry prostate cancer cells and bone stroma, or tissue framework, cells into space in a NASA-engineered "bioreactor," which recreates the natural environment for tumor development and progression. The shuttle will return to earth on February 2, 2003.

Dr. Chung, a urology professor, is seeking to understand how prostate cancer cells grow and communicate with other cells in the body. He and his co-investigators at NASA are also studying how zero gravity can be used as a tool to advance science, using the space shuttle as a laboratory to facilitate the growth and study the behavior of prostate cancer cells in the body.

Dr. Chung notes that an important goal of this experiment is to discover relevant genes that may "turn on or turn off" during the cascade of prostate cancer cells to the bone. "This study may provide us with insight into novel genes of diagnostic or prognostic value and may offer new targets for treatment of cancer metastasis," says Dr. Chung, who has conducted prostate cancer research with NASA grant funding since 1995.

Scientists are increasingly using zero gravity to create three-dimensional organoids in order to study the interaction of cells within organisms. Experiments in zero gravity have helped scientists understand development of heart, bone, muscle, endocrine organs and the locomotion of inflammatory cells and tumor cells.

"In space, we are able to create a ‘micro-environment’ that very closely resembles what happens at the cellular level in our bodies," says Dr. Chung.. "Zero gravity provides the opportunity to analyze the ‘cross talk’ between cells because they will grow under a low shearing force and they are not in contact with other solids, including plastic or glass, which can inhibit or modulate growth factors."

Previous experiments indicate that under these conditions, the organoid may grow to be 0.5 to 2.5 centimeters in diameter, which is not possible in earth’s gravity. Dr. Chung will use this three-dimensional organoid to better understand the basic molecular process that occurs between cancer cells and their environment.

In an earlier study, Dr. Chung and his team had been able to permanently program genotypic and phenotypic changes into prostate cancer cells through specific cellular interaction between prostate or bone stromal cell lines. The NASA flight experiment will study alterations of the cell activity under zero gravity. In addition to growing the organoid during the mission, investigators will recover cells and media from the space flight for future behavioral, genetic and gene expression studies back on earth. Researchers will study prostate cancer cells’ ability to migrate, invade, and respond to hormones and drugs after the shuttle returns to earth, and results will be compared with prostate cancer specimens obtained from patients. Mahul Amin, MD, associate professor of Pathology and Urology in the Emory University School of Medicine, will provide the clinical samples of prostate cancer and bone stroma cells for this experiment.

"We have to remember that cancer is not just a cell," says Dr. Chung, "it is an organ that is comprised of cancer cells, blood vessels, fibromuscular stroma, neural and inflammatory cells. We don’t understand how cancer cells compartmentalize themselves locally and why and when they metastasize. We are working to recreate cancer in a microenvironment to better understand how it works. Zero gravity provides us with an attractive opportunity in which to do this."

The combination of prostate cancer cells and healthy bone stroma cells is important because of the high rate of bone metastasis among prostate cancer patients. Nearly 90 percent of all prostate cancer patients who die of this disease have bone metastasis.

NASA also has an interest in this project as the space program continues to develop and as the space station is built. By providing a true zero-gravity environment in which experiments can be conducted, NASA is also providing an opportunity to use space as a laboratory. A NASA Flight Research Program Overview lists one of the research goals as: "To study the role of gravity in technological processes, building a scientific foundation for understanding the consequences of gravitational environments beyond Earth’s boundaries."

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