Axiom 3’s return to Earth comes with a potential cancer breakthrough

Axiom 3’s return to Earth comes with a potential cancer breakthrough


While cancer deaths are on the decline, the disease still kills a remarkable number of people. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2021, 1.9 million people were diagnosed with cancer and 608,570 died of the disease. 

Cancer afflicts the high and the low with no discrimination. Country music great Toby Keith recently died of stomach cancer. King Charles III of Great Britain has been diagnosed with the disease.

Recently, a crew of commercial astronauts on the Ax-3 mission returned to Earth after a period of performing experiments on the International Space Station with a possible new cancer treatment.

The Ax-3 mission, consisting of four commercial astronauts working for Axiom Space, lifted off in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on Jan.18 and docked with the International Space Station (ISS) two days later. After performing numerous experiments on board the orbiting space lab, the Ax-3 crew undocked from the ISS on Feb. 7 and splashed down two days later.

One of the experiments that the Ax-3 astronauts performed has potential world-changing implications. The experiment involved observing the growth of cancer tumor organoids in micro gravity. Tumor organoids are cells derived from cancer patients that behave much like tumors in the body in the way they proliferate. 

The tumor organoids were produced by a team of scientists led by Dr. Catriona H.M. Jamieson at the University of California at San Diego. According to Fortune Magazine, the experiment was part of a long-running research project using multiple flights to the International Space Station.

Jamieson explained to Fortune that cancer’s progression under stress is partially due to a “cloning gene” called ADAR1. Prior space missions showed the ADAR1 gene was activated in mini tumors that went on to triple in size in 10 days, a rate much faster than what is seen on Earth.  

After a previous mission, her team noticed that mini tumors sent to space activated the gene before tripling in size in just 10 days, a much faster rate of growth than seen on the ground. Jamieson said additional testing showed the gene “proliferated wildly” in the space tumors. 

In an earlier mission, the team treated the mini tumors with two different anti-cancer medications to block ADAR1, including the FDA-approved fedratinib, which is used “for treating blood cancers, but not solid masses.” That experiment led to work with the experimental drug rebecsinib, which, according to Fortune, blocks ADAR1 activation “by preventing it from spawning malignant proteins.” 

Axiom 3 launched with “breast cancer mini tumors treated with the new concoction,” and “researchers have found that it inhibits cancer growth significantly when compared to controls and is even more effective than fedratinib.”

Jamieson suggests that rebecsinib may be a “kill switch” for cancer, something that could stop the growth and spread of tumors cold. Researchers plan to begin clinical trials by the end of 2024.

Of course, when it comes to research into treating diseases like cancer, the usual caveats apply. What works in the lab sometimes does not work in the human body. Clinical trials may uncover side effects that would make a proposed treatment problematic. Finally, a treatment that works for one kind of cancer may not work as well for other kinds.

Still, Dr. Jamieson said the research is “not just unbridled hope, it’s practical hope.”

A cancer diagnosis is among the most frightening news a doctor can give a patient. At best it can mean months of agonizing treatment before the happy news that the disease is in remission. At worst, it can mean a slow, lingering death.

Current cancer treatments include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and the new array of precision therapeutics, some of which use the body’s own immune system to attack the tumor. Rebecsinib, tested on the ISS, developed on Earth, could be one more way to extend patients’ lives and health. Hope doesn’t begin to describe the prospect of adding yet another weapon in the war on cancer.

The news of a possible new cancer treatment derived from microgravity research provides another answer to the question asked since President Reagan first proposed building a crewed space station: Is it worth the money spent to build and operate it? The answer for anyone with a functioning brain has to be an emphatic yes.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

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