NASA visits Huntsman Cancer Institute to share results of research conducted in space

SALT LAKE CITY -- The idea of curing cancer seems like a long road ahead, but NASA wants to speed that process along by taking research and flying it out of this world to eradicate cancer.

NASA toured Huntsman Cancer Institute Wednesday afternoon. They shared scientific research completed in space with HCI researchers working to cure cancer.

NASA teamed up with CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, to bring medical research to space and perform experiments in a zero-gravity, pure environment. That environment allows researchers to grow molecules larger than on Earth.

“We initiate these visits to talk with scientist researchers and tell them what we have here, is why doing research in space and micro-gravity might be good for you and your science,” said NASA Associate Program Scientist Pete Hasbrook.

“You grow crystals because you can get them [bigger in space] and fire an X-ray beam at them, and the X-ray particles will bounce off in different directions and you can catch them on a piece of photographic film, and a computer can decipher that pattern and tell you exactly how the molecule is arranged—how the atoms in the molecule are arranged,” explained CASIS Senior Program Scientist Kenneth Savin.

He said there work in space helps scientists back on Earth.

“You do it in space because you're going to get better crystals and more defined patterns in space," he said. "And you get a better understanding of that structure… If you know the structure of what a protein looks like, you can then better design molecules to fit it into that protein and turn it on or off. And that's the basis for a lot of drugs.”

Savin said CASIS has been working on five research experiments in space over the last four years.

Astronaut Randy Bresnik has been on two space flights. One was in 2009 on Atlantis for 11 days. The second was July 28, 2017 to December 14th. He orbited the Earth 2,224 times. He also participated in research on board. He was growing lung tissue.

“I'm a Marine Corps test pilot by trade, so I'm not a cancer researcher; but I'll take the cancer researcher’s work and experiment and execute the procedure, whether it's growing lung tissue or the protein crystal growth,” Bresnik explained. “I'll do the experiment in zero gravity and freeze it and take it back to Earth.”

Astronaut Bresnik also has a personal cause to his scientific research effort in space.

“My mother passed away from cancer 22 years ago, she fought it for 10 years," he said. "At that time, chemotherapy is the best we have. I hope in my life time, we look back and say that was barbaric.”

To learn more about NASA and CASIS’s effort to cure cancer in space, click here.