Could space research offer new hope for cancer patients?

The nano age and space age have converged in a partnership that could usher in a new era of hope for cancer patients.

Like the advent of modern anesthesia and its impact on surgical research in the 19th century, a major research project aboard the International Space Station for the newly-created Houston Methodist Center of Space NanoMedicine could deliver major results.

“We are on the verge of something big,” Alessandro Grattoni, director of the Houston Methodist Center of Space Nanomedicine, told “It could change the way chemotherapy is delivered.”

A concept developed by Grattoni involves a reloadable implant, inserted under the skin, which is trained to attack tumors and ferret out hidden metastasized cells. The first experiment launched on Space X-8 last month and is expected to shed light on the mysterious way particles diffuse as they move through tight nanospaces. Grattoni’s team, working with particles 50,000 times smaller than the human hair, have previously only viewed their work via computer modeling.

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“Part of our frustration has been working on this for 10 years, never being able to see it, that’s why it was important to create a larger scale,” he told

The project is studying the diffusion of drug molecules through nanochannels encased in DVD-sized panels, enabling scientists to view the movement of the 2.8-micrometer particles without gravity’s tug.

Micro-gravity provides scientists with 3-D viewing of cell behavior. Fluorescent microscopes on the ISS are sending real-time images to NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Grattoni and his team are seeing the fruits of their work for the first time.

“Space is accelerating our research,” said Grattoni. “It’s exciting knowing it’s actually going to be used by someone rather than just being a benchmark.” Austin-based NanoMedical Systems has the license on the invention.

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Since 1998, the ISS has facilitated projects by over 2,400 researchers from 83 countries. However, the new device, paired with the work of nanotechnology pioneer, Mauro Ferrari, offers a particularly bright beacon in a potential new age of nanotheraputics.

Ferrari’s landmark preclinical study cured lung metastases in 50 percent of breast cancers by creating the first drug to successfully eliminate lung metastases in mice.  That’s equivalent to about 24 years of long-term survival following metastatic disease in humans, according to the nanotechnologist. The majority of cancer deaths are due to metastases to the lung and liver.

“This may sound like science fiction, like we’ve penetrated and destroyed the Death Star, but what we discovered is transformational,” Ferrari, president and CEO of the Houston Methodist Research Institute, told “We’re talking about changing the landscape of curing metastatic disease, so it’s no longer a death sentence.”

Due to the body’s own defense mechanism, most cancer drugs are absorbed into healthy tissue, causing negative side effects with only a fraction of the medicine actually reaching the tumor, making it less effective, according to Ferrari. Like the moon launches during the Apollo program, he says the new strategy enables sequential passage of these natural barriers to transport a lethal payload into the cancer’s core.

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Since publication of his results in Nature Biotechnology earlier this year, Ferrari says governments and over 2,000 people suffering with the disease have reached out to his team to participate in a clinical study that could begin next year.

Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the ISS, also cites the specialized needles and capsules developed by Virginia-based NuVue Therapeutics to mark tumors as a promising breakthrough.

“A new cancer drug can take as long as 30 to 40 years,” she told “This is exciting because it doesn’t include pharmaceuticals.”

The original research, begun during the STS-95 space shuttle mission in 1998, has developed into a microencapsulation process in which a biodegradable micro-balloon delivers anti-tumor drugs in doses smaller than the pinhead of a needle. Researchers discovered that the specialized needles could also be used to deliver marking agents for enhanced ultrasound visualization during biopsies. Investigators hope to bring the products to market within three to five years.

Ferrari likens the partnership between science and space to President John F. Kennedy’s call for exploration. “If we can truly cure the nastiest of cancers, we have the responsibility to do so not because it’s easy but because it’s hard,” he said. “If we do, I’m confident the generation of my children will see an end to cancer deaths.”