How NASA and space also help beat cancer


Since the first humans in orbit, much research has been conducted to understand the effects of the particular conditions encountered in space on the body. Astronauts, whether on board the International Space Station (ISS) or more distant manned missions (such as the astronauts of the Apollo missions and tomorrow those of the Artemis missions) receive large quantities of radiation, via cosmic radiation as well as charged particles from our star.

They must also deal with the deleterious effects on health of microgravity – decalcification of bones, accelerated aging, appearance of cancers… For 20 years NASA has been looking, among other things, for a better way to measure the impact of radiation on the human body. . However, this work is currently being used to defeat cancer, here below, on Earth. We are talking here about the study Office of Biological and Physical Research of NASA which began in 2002.

When space advances cancer research

In detail, this study initially aimed to understand to what extent specific parts of our genetic code could keep track of the impact of radiation over time. These bits of genetic code are called by researchers “microsatellites”. This term actually refers to repetitive pieces of DNA code, in which certain motifs (between one and six base pairs in length) are repeated – generally between 5 and 50 times.

These microsatellites are found in thousands of places in our genome. And they are much more prone to mutations than other parts of DNA based on the damage they sustain. This is also why these parts of the genome have long been used as biomarkers by geneticists. But on the sidelines of its study, NASA discovered that these microsatellites could serve as a basis for screening tests for multiple types of cancer.

And the outlets are already there: this is how the OncoMate screening test (from the Promega laboratory) was born, which has just been approved by the American Medicines Agency (FDA). For the time being, OncoMate’s scope of action is limited to screening for Lynch syndrome, which affects one person in 279 and increases the prevalence of certain types of cancer such as colon, stomach and ovarian cancer. But in addition to screening, OncoMate makes it possible to follow the evolution of the disease and to treat some of the most easily treated cancers.

This represents a tremendous hope for overcoming the lethality of these cancers. But this is probably only the very first ground outlet of this study begun in space. This shows once again all the usefulness of continuing investments in space, even though we already owe to this adventure a dizzying list of innovations used every day by humans on Earth.

Among these innovations directly taken from space, we can cite anti-scratch treatments for glass (glasses, lenses, protective glasses, etc.), but also the measurement of body temperature in the ear, materials such as TPA used for example in transparent dental braces, water filters, memory foam, or smoke detectors. We can think that the Artemis missions will also bring with them a wave of completely new innovations, from health, to engineering, through materials science…

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