Every day, people are hunting for the most ground-breaking and innovative solutions to urgent problems. But sometimes, those solutions take us by surprise – popping up all of a sudden where they were the least expected. That was certainly the case when researchers this week announced a unique discovery: a promising connection between the physical conditions of cancer patients going through chemotherapy, and astronauts in space.
The realization came to light during a conversation between senior NASA scientist Jessica Scott and a fellow cancer scientist during a conference they both recently attended. After sharing some insights from their research, it wasn’t long before the similarities between how spaceflight and chemotherapy affect the human body began to surface. The overlapping issues including bone and muscle loss, which have been successfully combated through astronautical training regiments.
As Scott explains, “For example, astronauts experience something called ‘space fog,’ which is similar to what cancer patients call ‘chemo brain.’ [And] both astronauts and cancer patients are exposed to what we call ‘multiple hits.’ When you put these multiple hits together, almost every system in the body is impacted. For example, astronauts experience something called ‘space fog,’ which is similar to what patients call ‘chemo brain,’ and both astronauts and cancer patients may have decreases in bone, muscle, and heart size.” In a moment of shell-shocked honesty, she called the comparison “eery.”
Their paper, which cites evidence of challenges breathing and pumping blood throughout the body (known as decreased cardiorespiratory fitness) in both groups, was published in Cell Journal. With so much potential, the researchers barely seem ready for this. How strong is the connection? How soon can they start implementing the practices that are so helpful for astronauts on cancer patients as well? When caution and resolution are both of the utmost importance, it can be hard to know how to start taking steps forward.
Scott emphasizes that all training plans for cancer patients must continue to be personalized like they are for those training for spaceflight with NASA. But the hope is strong that some of NASA’s practices can be successfully lent to patients for monumental improvements.