Surprising as this may sound, gold is useful in research into cures for cancer. Not in laboratories on Earth, but out there in outer space on the International Space Station (ISS). Earlier this year, NASA scientists found that the microgravity environment aboard the ISS helps reduce loss of cells from cultures, can create cultures in specific shapes and improve retrieval of cells for analysis – all of which would improve experiment results.
NASA’s Magnetic 3D Cell Culturing investigation applies the Earth-based technique of using magnetic forces to control cell cultures. In order to better manipulate the cells, researchers added gold atoms in a polymer matrix to a culture of human lung cancer cells. These atoms bind strongly to the membrane of the cells, which then makes it possible to manipulate them with magnets.
Glauco Souza, principle investigator at Nano3D Biosciences, Inc in Houston and his colleagues have done research indicating the gold nanoparticles do not interfere with biological processes when tested on Earth.
“This technology may enable us to handle cells in space in a way currently not possible,” says project manager Luis Zea, research associate at BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado, Boulder in a conversation with Melissa Gaskill from the International Space Station Program Office. The technique, known as bio-printing, also makes it possible to grow cell cultures in two dimensions on a surface in space, the way they naturally grow on Earth.
“On Earth, you put cells on a biofilm medium and they grow on its surface,” Zea explains. “That isn’t possible in space. So currently, we start growing cells on a medium on the ground, launch to space, and then start the experiment. With the use of gold and magnets, we can start growing cell cultures in space the same as on Earth.”
The technology also has potential applications for research requiring advanced cell cultures for the production of various tissues and drugs, like those in the current study that is trying to develop a cure for lung cancer. Creating such cultures that have the ability to easily mimic the characteristics of tissue in living organisms on Earth could, for example, reduce drug development costs. A precious metal to make costly medicines much cheaper: that is delicious irony.