The ways astronauts prep for spaceflight could benefit cancer patients, say researchers


The ways astronauts prep for spaceflight could benefit cancer patients, say researchers


Astronauts experience similar physical stress to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy. A statement published in the journal Cell suggested that if cancer patients can mimic a NASA astronaut’s exercise schedule before, during, and after a mission, they me be able to reduce the long term impact of the treatments on their bodies.

"It was surprising when we looked at similarities between astronauts during spaceflight and cancer patients during treatment. Both have a decrease in muscle mass, and they have bone demineralization and changes in heart function," says senior author Jessica Scott, an exercise physiology researcher at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's Exercise Oncology Service. The similarities also extend to brain function: "Astronauts may get something called space fog, where they have trouble focusing or get a little forgetful. That's very similar to what some cancer patients experience, which is called chemo brain."

Although the symptoms are very similar, astronauts and cancer patients are given very different advice on how to take care of their bodies. Prior to a mission, astronauts are required to exercise while physicians monitor their body systems including cardiorespiratory fitness. This allows the physicians to establish a baseline. Throughout the mission the astronauts are required to continue exercising by utilising special equipment made for exercising in space. Finally, when returning to earth, the physicians continue to monitor the astronauts until their body systems return to their baseline levels established before the mission.

"That's completely backwards to how it is on Earth, where cancer patients may still be advised to rest in preparation for and during treatment and may have to ask permission to exercise from their physicians," says Scott.


Scott and her team believe that basic exercise such as walking on a treadmill could benefit cancer patients in the long term. They believe that cancer patients could also develop their own baseline levels before receiving treatment - similar to an astronaut before a mission. Exercising during and after the treatment could also potentially reduce the negative side effects of treatments, such as heart problems.

During the 1960s, only 50% of cancer patients survived 5 years past their diagnosis, and so oncologists focussed their research on reducing the size and spread of tumours. NASA instead focussed on developing ways to keep their astronauts healthy. Presently, NASA can safely keep astronauts in space for up to 11 months, but although 90% of patients now survive early stage cancer, there have not been similar efforts to counteract the physical stress their bodies undergo during the treatment.

"That's why it's very timely that we start thinking about how to utilize NASA's tactics to manage some of these long-term side effects of cancer treatments," says Scott. "Many patients aren't dying from their cancer, but they're now at risk of dying from these side effects. Using NASA's exercise plan could help with this."

Scott’s team is currently studying whether exercise can offset the side effects of treatment in cancer patients. Patients are provided with in-home treadmills and video call software to participate in the study from home, and follow the astronaut practice of exercising before, during, and after a mission.

"We really need to do a lot more research and a lot more work," she says, "but it's very promising that this NASA exercise framework could be applied to help the approximately 1 million individuals that will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States this year, as well as the over 15 million cancer survivors in the United States today."


Jessica M. Scott, Lianne B. Dolan, Larry Norton, John B. Charles, Lee W. Jones. Multisystem Toxicity in Cancer: Lessons from NASA’s Countermeasures ProgramCell, 2019; 179 (5): 1003 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.10.024

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