Better Cancer Treatments May Follow Research In Outer Space
Rebekah Eliason for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Although a necessary evil for a vast amount of people, systemic cancer treatment is an invasive procedure with devastating side effects.
People undergoing cancer treatment often experience nausea, immune suppression, hair loss and organ failure. All of this is endured with the hope of exterminating the cancerous tissues in the body. If a treatment were developed to specifically target the cancerous tissue instead of treating the patient’s entire body, it would provide a welcome alternative to using toxic levels of chemotherapy and radiation. Quality of life for patients with cancer would drastically improve with such treatments.
Fascinatingly, the research for such therapy began in space and could soon provide such treatment options here on Earth.
Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), there is the unique opportunity to study substances in a microgravity environment. Currently there is a particular amount of research that has made substantial advancements in cancer therapy. This process is known as microencapsulation and provides the ability to create tiny, liquid-filled, biodegradable micro-balloons which contain particular mixtures of concentrated anti-tumor drugs. With the use of specialized needles, a doctor can inject the micro-balloons, also called microcapsules, into specific treatment sites within a cancer patient. New targeted therapy similar to this could revolutionize cancer treatment delivery.
In order to develop this type of technology, it was necessary to utilize the microgravity environment aboard the space station to understand microencapsulation before the experiments could be performed on Earth. Dennis Morrison, PhD, retired NASA principal investigator of the Microencapsulation Electrostatic Processing System-II (MEPS-II) study and current vice president and director for microencapsulation research and development at NuVue Therapeutics, Inc., explained, “The technique that we have for making these microcapsules could not be done on the ground, because the different densities of the liquids would layer, but in space, since there is not sedimentation due to gravity, everything goes spherical.”
Using a mixture of 80 percent water and 20 percent oil, the MEPS operations in microgravity were successful in uniting the two liquids in a way incapable of production on the Earth. In the unique conditions of space, the liquid-filled microcapsules spontaneously formed into spherical, tiny liquid-filled bubbles that were encased with a thin, semi-permeable outer membrane.
Since each molecule on a liquid’s surface in space is pulled with equal tension by its neighbors, the surface tension causes liquids to form into spheres. This MEPS-II system effectively allowed liquids to combine in a bubble shape that let the fluids interface instead of sit on top of each other.
“We were able to figure out what parameters we needed to control so we could make the same kind of microcapsules on the ground,” said Morrison. “Now, we no longer have to go to space. Space was our teacher, our classroom to figure out how we could make these on Earth.”
Although the MEPS-II technology was discovered in 2002, funding hurdles from global economic struggles has caused difficulty in finding investor capital for human clinical trials of the microcapsules. The resulting gap in research has slowed down the progression from discovery to practical product that improves cancer therapy.
NuVue is currently bringing the MEPS-II system to commercial scale under the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Good Manufacturing Practice requirements. The MEPS technology was exclusively licensed by NuVue for medical use, including cancer treatment. Currently, these cancer therapies are subject to several patents and patent pending applications.
Already, the commercialization of the MEPS technology and methods of developing new applications for the microcapsules has begun. Thirteen licensed microcapsule-related patents are currently in existence and two more are pending.
Specialized biopsy needles from NuVue work together with their enhanced ultrasound guided visualization technology. This allows the needles to be visible using ultrasound imaging. Consequently, a targeted and site-specific technique can be used to deliver the MEPS microencapsulated drug to the tumor. Normal chemotherapy uses a pharmaceutical injection that treats the entire body but by using a targeted and specific approach, the MEPS microcapsules would reduce the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy. In addition, the microcapsules are capable of combining drugs specifically tailored for each patient and could be engineered using time release. This would provide longer-lasting therapeutic effects among the patient’s cancerous tissues.
“Overall, this amounts to a combination of unique things that individually work, but put together work much better,” said Morrison. “Microcapsules are a device that can be used together with ultrasound needles to mark the biopsy site for diagnosis. They can also mark the perimeter and margin of the tumor. When properly implemented, ultrasound can monitor the progress of any tumor therapy with the new MEPS marker imaging microcapsules being positioned within the tumor tissues, even if the therapeutic delivered was not through the use of the MEPS microencapsulation process.”
In laboratory tests, animal models of human prostate and lung tumors were injected with the MEPS-II microcapsules that contained anticancer drugs. In follow-up tests, the models were injected with specific cryosurgical effects that were similar to a freeze and thaw method on the timorous tissues. It was discovered that direct injection of the microcapsules into the tumors showed improved site-specific therapeutic results as well has inhibited tumor growth. After the cryo-surgery, the microcapsules were able to improve destruction of the tumor when compared with freezing or local chemotherapy alone.
Although the previous studies of microcapsules by Morrison were mainly focused on prostate and lung cancer, he is currently targeting breast cancer treatment for approval by the FDA. As a regular treatment option, microcapsules filled with anti-tumor drug therapies are still a few years from approval but pre-clinical studies could begin as early as next year.
After the new technology receives FDA approval, clinical trials are planned at both MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the Mayo Cancer Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, which will entail injecting microcapsules with anti-tumor drugs and directly applying them to tumor sites in humans. Based on the success in animal models with human prostate and lung tumor treatment, Morrison has high expectations and hopes for the use of microcapsule treatment in breast cancer in the near future.
According to Morrison and NuVue research team, “These technologies were only able to come to fruition because of the availability of the microgravity environment aboard the space station. Without it, this innovative breakthrough involving the microencapsulation technology process would have never been created.”