Researching cancer in space has led to great progress in cancer treatment and may help make cancer drugs more effective, according to NASA officials at a recent event at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

Astronaut Frank Rubio conducted cancer-related research during his recent mission to the International Space Station (ISS). At the DC event, he explained that cells suspended in space age more rapidly, which speeds research, and that their structures appear as “purer,” meaning they do not clump together as they do on Earth due to gravity. These purer cells allow for better analysis of their molecular structures, which can help make cancer drugs more effective.

As Rubio noted, space is “a unique place for research.”

At the event, NASA administrator Bill Nelson and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra discussed the progress their respective agencies are making in the weightless environment of space and on Earth toward the Biden administration’s Cancer Moonshot.

The Cancer Moonshot refers to a series of federal health initiatives that Joe Biden launched in 2016 as vice president and that the Biden-Harris administration reignited in 2022 with new actions and commitments, including the creation of a Cancer Cabinet that enlists more than 15 federal agencies and White House departments to accelerate progress for people facing cancer. (Read this statement from last fall for a list of Moonshot accomplishments and commitments.)

“We go to space not just to explore the stars, but to improve life here on Earth,” Nelson said at the event. “In that microgravity environment, NASA is studying cancer growth—and the effect of cancer treatments—much faster than we can on Earth. I am grateful for President Biden’s leadership as we continue to make moonshot after moonshot to end cancer as we know it.”

For more than 40 years, cancer research has been conducted in space.

For example, pharmaceutical company Merck researched the anticancer drug Keytruda (pembrolizumab) on the ISS. Crystallization is an important process commonly used in drug manufacturing that allows drugs to be administered to patients intravenously, which can replace lengthy and painful chemotherapy treatments, according to Nelson. In 2017, Merck conducted experiments to see whether a key ingredient would transform into a liquid through crystallization more rapidly in space than on Earth.

Merck’s findings helped identify techniques that can be used to imitate the effects of crystals on Earth, advancing cancer treatment options.

“Eliminating cancer as we know it is a goal that unifies the country,” Becerra said. “We all know someone, and most of us love someone, who has battled this terrible disease. As we did during the race to the moon, we believe our technology and scientific community are capable of making the impossible a reality when it comes to ending cancer as we know it.”