Scientists are growing human lung cancer cells with gold nanoparticles aboard the International Space Station (ISS), an advance that may hold the key to beating cancer. The Magnetic 3D Cell Culturing investigation applies the Earth-based technique of using magnetic forces to handle cell cultures in the micro-gravity environment of the space station. Researchers add gold atoms in a polymer matrix to a culture of human lung cancer cells. These atoms bind strongly to the membrane of the cells, which then makes it possible to manipulate them with magnets.
“This technology may enable us to handle cells in space in a way currently not possible,” said project manager Luis Zea, from University of Colorado, Boulder in the US. “We can use it to manipulate cells and make sure they are where we want them,” said Zea. The technique, known as bioprinting, also makes it possible to grow cell cultures in two dimensions on a surface in space, the way they naturally grow on Earth. “On Earth, you put cells on a biofilm medium and they grow on its surface,” Zea said. “That does not happen in space, because there is not enough gravity to hold them to that surface. So currently, we start growing cells on a medium on the ground, launch to space, and then start the experiment.
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“With the magnetic particles, we can start growing cell cultures in space the same as on Earth,” said Zea. These two-dimensional cell cultures provide controls for space-based cell culture research and comparisons with ground studies. That enhances the cell and tissue culture capabilities of the orbiting lab and enables biological research previously deemed unfeasible in space. Glauco Souza, principle investigator at Nano3D Biosciences in Houston and colleagues have done research indicating the gold nanoparticles do not interfere with biological processes when tested on Earth. The technology also has potential applications for investigations requiring 3D cell cultures.
In space, cell cultures grow in 3D, which decades of research have shown is more representative of how cells grow and function in living organisms. Researchers may be able to use this technology to direct the shape of 3D cultures to resemble a specific target of study, such as a particular type of cancer, Zea said. Creating cultures that better capture the characteristics of tissue in living organisms almost as easily on the ground as in space could, for example, reduce drug development costs. “This investigation tests a new technology and other scientists can then identify how it may apply to their field of research,” Zea added.