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Defy Gravity, Kill Cancer

Defy Gravity, Kill Cancer

Chris Campbell

Posted March 21, 2024

Chris Campbell

On Earth, cancer is a slow and insidious killer, taking years to develop and spread.

But, as scientists at the International Space Station discovered recently, cancer becomes a beast unleashed when taken in space.

Thing is…

In the weightlessness of space, cancer cells grow at a mind-blowing rate, tripling in size in just 10 days.

(On earth, this rate of growth takes TEN YEARS.)

The culprit behind this accelerated growth? Microgravity, the weak gravitational force that astronauts experience in space.

In this environment, cancer cells are no longer restrained by the normal boundaries of tissue. They invade and metastasize, spreading to other areas of the body with terrifying speed.

Sure, this might sound like a nightmare, but…

This rapid growth has given the space station scientists an opportunity to study cancer on fast-forward.

Blessing in Disguise

The rapid development of cancer in space means that scientists can test potential treatments at an equally accelerated pace.

And they may have already found a promising lead: a gene called ADAR1.

ADAR1 has been on the radar of cancer researchers for about a decade, linked to the ability of cancer cells to clone themselves and evade the immune system.

This gene is activated when cells are under stress and has been implicated in about 20 different types of cancer, particularly when cancers become resistant to therapy.

By targeting ADAR1 with a drug called Rexanib, scientists were able to shut down the gene and prevent mini tumors from cloning themselves in the bioreactor.

This discovery has led them to believe that they may have found a "kill switch" for cancer, a way to stop the disease in its tracks before it has a chance to spread.

But the story doesn't end there.

The astronauts themselves are also part of the experiment, providing their blood so that researchers can study how their stem cells respond to spaceflight.

A Whole New Field

This study is part of a burgeoning field called Context-Accelerated Research and Development (CARD).

Sure, it’s a mouthful. But it’s a simple idea. 

CARD is a way of using the special features of a specific environment to accelerate desired outcomes in research, design, or production.

In space, for example, the microgravity environment allows for the production of materials with unique properties difficult (or impossible) to achieve on Earth.

Case in point:

The International Space Station has also been used to manufacture high-quality fiber optics, protein crystals, and other materials that benefit from the lack of gravity-induced convection and sedimentation.

But it’s not just space…

Also consider the extreme conditions found in the deep ocean -- high pressure, low temperature, and absence of sunlight.

These conditions have led to the evolution of organisms with crazy biochemical properties.

In light of this, there’s a growing interest in Deep Sea Bioprospecting: scientists search for useful substances -- like new medicines or enzymes -- and/or leverage these environments to accelerate research on new substances.

Of course, CARD is something that we’ve been doing for a long time.

But in the past we’ve been limited by the strength of our technological levers.

Fortunately, AI can help. In fact, it’s already helping.

Don’t Miss Out

One main limitation in CARD research has been our ability to process and analyze the vast amounts of data generated by experiments in extreme environments.

In the past, scientists had to rely on manual analysis and interpretation -- time-consuming, prone to human error, and boring.

BUT

With the advent of AI and machine learning, we can now process and analyze data at an incredible pace.

Already, scientists have used AI to analyze vast datasets from deep-sea expeditions, leading to the discovery of novel bioactive compounds with potential pharmaceutical applications.

Another limitation: the cost and complexity of conducting experiments in extreme environments.

Sending a research team to the bottom of the ocean or launching a spacecraft into orbit is no small feat. It requires significant resources, planning, and logistics.

BUT

Scientists have already deployed AI-powered robotics in extreme environments, such as the deep ocean, to autonomously collect samples and data, reducing the need for human intervention and lowering costs.

Finally, the siloed nature of scientific research has long hindered progress and collaboration.

Different fields of study have operated in isolation, with limited cross-pollination of ideas and insights.

BUT

AI is already helping to break down these silos by integrating knowledge from diverse domains and generating novel hypotheses.

This is leading to a more interdisciplinary approach to CARD, where experts from different fields can collaborate and leverage each other's strengths to tackle complex problems.

In all, this is great news.

There’s lots of fear surrounding AI and what it means for our future.

The danger in letting fear drive your decisions:

You’ll wake up in five to ten years and see you missed out on the best time in history to build chest-thumping] wealth.

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