Space Biology to Treat Brain Cancer « Charlie Teo Foundation

Space Biology to Treat Brain Cancer

Researcher name: Dr Joshua Chou
Institution: University of Technology, AUS
Grant Name: Research Rebels
Grant amount (AUD): $205K
Grant Awarded: 2020
Status: Complete

Meet the Researcher

Dr Joshua Chou is the epitome of an unconventional researcher. Inspired by the world’s most famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Professor Stephen Hawking, who provided personal advice to Joshua “that nothing defies gravity”, Joshua has applied his learnings from Harvard to use space biology to disable some of the hardest cancers to fight, like brain cancer.   

Never before has space biology been applied to brain cancer research. The team’s previous work has shown that other cancer cells at micro-gravity are unable to sense each other, no longer grow into tumours and die. The project will go a step further and in an Australian first, a research mission will launch brain cancer cells into space to orbit on the International Space Station to see if brain cancer cells can be killed at zero gravity and understand how that is happening.

While eventually brain cancer patients may be sent to space for treatment, the outcome is to develop drugs that patients can take while on Earth that tricks the brain cancer cells into behaving like they are in space.

Space microgravity to disrupt GBM mechanotransduction

Mechanobiology is the study of how cells are influenced by their physical environment. This emerging field of research provides an important perspective on understanding many aspects of cellular function and dysfunction.

Gravitational force is presumed to play a crucial role in regulating cell and tissue homeostasis by inducing mechanical stresses experienced at the cellular level. Thus, the concept of mechanical unloading (a decrease in mechanical stress) is associated with the weightlessness of space and can be replicated by simulating microgravity conditions, allowing for investigation of the mechanobiology aspects of cell function. The mechanical unloading of cells under microgravity conditions shifts the balance between physiology and pathophysiology, accelerating the progression and development of some disease states.

Cancer cells subjected to very weak gravity (microgravity) have been shown to have an altered cell cycle as well as a decreased migratory response. As such, microgravity has been thought to have anti-tumour potential through growth inhibition.

Previous groups have shown that microgravity inhibits proliferation and increases the chemosensitivity to cisplatin of malignant glioma. Thus, by subjecting glial tumour cells to microgravity, this project aims to further characterise the underlying fundamental molecular mechanisms that determine the aggressiveness of high-grade gliomas and identify novel therapeutic targets that are critical drivers of glioblastoma growth, highlighting a new direction and era for brain cancer therapies.

Dr Chou’s team built Australia’s first-ever microgravity device for looking at cancer cells. They have already shown that under microgravity, the most aggressive type of brain cancer is disrupted. The brain cancer is unable to form and stops growing.

Dr Chou has successfully built the world’s very first, fully functional brain tumour on a microchip. This ‘chip’ consists of multiple layers including a blood brain barrier, blood vessels and a 3D printed brain tumour. This has never been done before. Dr Chou was recently published about this in Advanced Therapeutics – you can read the publication below.

Dr Chou also discovered how to ‘open’ the blood brain barrier, to allow more drugs to get through to treat the brain cancer. His team is working on how to properly control and time this.


Silvani G, Basirun C, Wu H, Mehner C, Poole K, Bradbury P, Chou J. A 3D-Bioprinted Vascularized Glioblastoma-on-a-Chip for Studying the Impact of Simulated Microgravity as a Novel Pre-Clinical Approach in Brain Tumor Therapy. Advanced Therapeutics.2021;2100106. 

Silvani, G., Bradbury, P., Basirun, C. et al. Testing 3D printed biological platform for advancing simulated microgravity and space mechanobiology research. npj Microgravity 8, 19 (2022).