In Associate Professor Daniela Grimm’s office at the Department of Pharmacology, Aarhus University, a model aeroplane sits on a shelf pointing its nose towards the sky, and there is a poster on the wall of a Chinese rocket with a fiery tail. Although the visitor’s eye is drawn to the images of air and space travel, the subject of Professor Grimm’s research is actually cancer. Space travel nevertheless plays an important role, for by studying how cancer cells react in a weightless state, she and her research team are trying to find new causal relationships that can be used in the fight against cancer.
“By observing cell changes, we can see that we can increase the speed of apoptosis or programmed cell death by 20–30 per cent by exposing the cells to a weightless state for brief periods of time. This is interesting when you’re looking for ways to kill cancer cells,” says Professor Grimm.
So far, Professor Grimm’s research team has worked with simulated weightlessness in the laboratory and on so-called parabolic flights. By flying in a specific way, parabolic flights can achieve 22-second-long intervals of weightlessness, and with thirty-one intervals in a single flight, it is possible for the researchers to collect data about the reaction of the cells to the weightless state.
However, to study the cells in a true state of weightlessness for an extended period of time, it is necessary to travel into space. That is why Professor Grimm will send a sophisticated box with cancer cells into space in 2011 in an unmanned Chinese space shuttle.
“We want to study in more detail how the cells react when exposed to weightlessness for an extended period of time. We expect to see increased apoptosis, but we can’t be sure,” explains Professor Grimm.
The team hopes that the research will map new mechanisms that are capable of killing cancer cells so this knowledge can be used for further research.
In addition to research into cancer cells, Professor Grimm’s research team studies so-called tissue engineering. Tests have shown that cells grow three-dimensionally in a weightless state, and this characteristic might some day contribute to techniques for controlling the growth of cells, thus paving the way for new procedures such as the growing blood vessels for transplants.