In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues her countdown to the top ten research results from the space station, recently presented at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing, China. Be sure to check back for daily postings of the entire listing.
Last, but not least in my International Space Station top ten countdown is a new targeted method of chemotherapy drug delivery, with breast cancer trials now in development. This treatment has the potential to change the landscape for how we address cancer—a devastating illness that has touched many of our lives—which is why the result ranks number one on my list.
This research goes clear back to Expedition 5 in 2002 when astronaut Peggy Whitson was aboard the space station for the first time. Scientists were interested in looking at whether or not microencapsulation—basically, building a microballoon that could contain a small amount of a chemotherapy drug—could do a better job of delivering that treatment to a tumor. There were some theoretical models that suggested that if you didn’t have gravity in the way, you could assemble these microballoons with better properties to streamline delivery right to the tumor site.
The Microencapsulation Electrostatic Processing System (MEPS) investigation proved that if you took gravity out of the equation, you could actually make these microencapsules with the right kind of properties. But of course you can’t make clinically useful quantities in space. So scientists spent the next five years perfecting a way to make these microballoons in clinically relevant quantities and clinical purity on the ground. Those technologies were licensed to a commercial company, which then began developing microencapsulation as a therapeutic measure. That process in itself can take decades.
If you asked me six months ago, I would not have even included this particular topic in the top ten. The reason it’s back on the list is because of the new work being done to adapt this technology for treating breast cancer. Clinical trials also appear to be getting closer, with MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Researchers are finishing out the work that it takes to get FDA drug approval, so this is looking more promising for making it through to development, and finally to patient care.
As you can see from the span of the top ten, in research things go up and down and these developments can take decades. So the topic of targeted drug delivery for cancer treatment may fall off the list again, or it may successfully go all the way to the finish line. I think for sheer persistence in taking a great space station result and making it into something with lifesaving potential, the researchers and doctors working on this topic deserve credit for their endeavors. This is why they are number one on this year’s countdown.
Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist