The Big Question: Joshua Chou on cancer in space

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Dr. Joshua Chou is a senior lecturer in the School of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering & IT at the University of Technology Sydney. His laboratory works at the interface of biomaterials, cell mechanics, physics and cell biology, seeking to understand how physical properties and biological function affect each other in different cellular systems and diseases. These basic mechanical processes have profound effect in health (organ growth, heart/lung development) and diseases including cancer and osteoporosis.


What is the biggest question facing your field?

The biggest question facing the cancer biology field is how or what is the mechanism by which cancer senses or perceives its surrounding environment and creates a signal between the cancers to form a tumor. Also, what is the point at which a signal is communicated between the cancer to leave the tumor and invade the body?

in short, the question really is focused on how cancer senses and communicates amongst themselves.

Its no different than warfare. You want to be able to hear and understand how and what your enemy are communicating.That provides you with the intelligence to disrupt their function and movement.

Why is it significant?

Right now our approach towards cancer therapy is chemotherapy which in essence is like throwing a grenade into a room and it will blow good and bad cells irrespectively. There has obviously been developments in “precision medicine” to target more specifically but it has its challenges in that every patient’s cancer is very different.
Our approach is to first understand how they communicate, how they function, how they “sense” and “perceive” their environment and from that we will be able to identify biological target/s and/or receptor/s that are responsible for this communication to take the upper hand and deceive the cancer cells.

For example, if I take a person who has lived in sunny Queensland all their life, and suddenly put them in Antarctica , the first response will be cold and shivering. And that tells us, there are cold receptors in the human body and how that affects the body and disrupt its function.
So similarly what we want to do is put different cancers in space where its cold, has solar radiation and microgravity and observe how they respond and which receptors turn on/off that would otherwise not be turned on/off on Earth due to gravity.

All cancer research has shown that cancers are highly mechanosensitive which means that they are very sensitive to sensing their environment. So they will definitely respond when there is no gravity because that means there is no more mechanical forces available for them to sense their surroundings. If they can’t sense their surroundings, how are they able to communicate to form a tumor?

Where is the answer likely to come from?

The answer we are looking for can only be found in space because while we can mimic microgravity on Earth, its not the same as being there. In space is when the cancer cells will experience real microgravity and that is when we will be able to study what mechanosensing receptor/s are turned on/off and that way we are able to understand how they respond. The idea is not so that in future cancer patients get sent to space, but rather, by identifying the receptor/s responsible for mechanosensing in cancers, we will be able to develop targeted drug therapies to block those receptor/s and fool/deceive the cancer cells on Earth into thinking they are in a microgravity environment or essentially in space. Its like putting cancer cells with virtual reality goggles.

Because all cancers are different, and from different region of the body, there must be some fundamental functions , especially survival that they share amongst each other. Its like humans, we have different sexes, different races, ages, and all our body are different but we share common function like heart beat, breathing, blood flow, etc. These are essential and common body functions. It’s no different with cancers.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons; Joshua Chou

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