Scientists fly a glider with tumours on board to test if gravity slows the growth of cancer

EBU Copyright RTBF/Team of scientists conduct an experiment to see if gravity has an effect on cancer
By Roselyne Min with EBU
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Scientists are trying to find out if gravity has an effect on cancer, heart rates, and bone fractures by using a glider to create weightlessness.


A team of scientists has used a glider in Belgium to study how gravity impacts our health.

The main aim of the study was to see if weightlessness can slow or stop the growth of cancer and whether the radiation astronauts are exposed to in space, on the other hand, can speed up its development.

In order to recreate the right conditions, the glider flew in an arc with cancerous tumours sourced from the Netherlands stowed in the cockpit.

"These samples came from the HUB Organoids in the Netherlands and these are from real cancer patients who have donated their tumours for cancer (research)," said Dr Tricia Larose, a researcher in charge of the 'Tumors in Space' research project at the University of Oslo in Norway.

"No one has done this before... So, here we are, attempting to do something for the benefit of everyone, all over the world," she said. 

The aircraft took off at 220 km/h and when it reached an altitude of 1,000 m, it flew downwards in a parabolic - or a curved - manoeuvre.

On board was Vladimir Plester, a veteran Belgian pilot from the European Space Agency (ESA). Dubbed "Mister Microgravity," he has carried out more than 5,000 parabolic flights.

During the experiment, Plester performed around 10 parabolas to create space-like conditions with an absence of gravity. This state of weightlessness - so-called "microgravity" - lasts for about 20-22 seconds. 

"We go through a phase of a few seconds where we will weigh 3 or 4 times our body weight in one phase. I am normally 80 kg so during 2-3 seconds I will weigh 240-250 kg, and it shakes a little. And then we enter in weightlessness, and the weight goes to 0,” said ESA physicist and engineer Pletser.

More zero gravity tests planned for space

Such parabolic tests are often considered "low-cost" space research as they recreate the phenomenon in the absence of gravity without a shuttle or a rocket and regardless of the aircraft type.

The glider test was carried out ahead of a planned space mission in 2025.

The 31-day space mission will launch to the China Space Station in a joint effort of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the China Manned Space Agency.

The glider also carried out experiments to see how zero gravity affected heart rates and bone fractures.

Pletser wore a special measurement system, called Kino, an application linked to a smartphone to measure heart signals based on gravity levels.

The third experiment was to test the feasibility of developing a device to treat the fractures of astronauts in real conditions without having to resort to a surgeon.

The research team in charge of the experiment tested mechanical stresses on demineralised bone fractures, examined how they reform, and measured the impact of weightlessness on the fracture.

For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

Video editor • Roselyne Min

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