"When you take away the force of gravity, you can unmask some things you can’t readily see on Earth," said cell biologist Jeanne Becker of Nano3D Biosciences in Houston. "When gravitational force is reduced, cell shape changes, the way they grow changes, the genes they activate change, the proteins they make change."
The gravity present in low-Earth orbit — which can be between 10,000 to 1 million times less powerful than that of gravity felt here on Earth — allows cancer researchers to create experiments geared towards the study of cell behavior that is impossible to accomplish on Earth.
Such studies have taken place since place since the 1970s on Skylab, a retrofitted Saturn V rocket which became the first space station utilized by the United States. Upon Skylab, scientists discovered that red blood cells develop bumpy surfaces in space, but these alterations dissipated upon the samples being reevaluated hours after being exposed to Earth’s gravity.
"When you grow cancers in three dimensions as opposed to flat layers, their response to drugs is vastly different — they become more resistant to drugs," Becker told SPACE.com.
These discoveries have led to exciting innovations, such as devices that mimic the effects of microgravity on Earth. Other instruments use magnetic fields to levitate blood cells to offset the effect of the Earth’s gravity. While these devices are more cost effective than research done aboard say, a space shuttle or the International Space Station, they cannot fully replace the effects of microgravity seen in low-Earth orbit.
"With the International Space Station, we have a lab that doesn’t exist anywhere else," Becker said. "It’s an exciting platform for discovery."