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Press Releases

Friday, May 6, 2005

SU Students Team With NASA For Cancer Cell Study

SALISBURY, MD---“I’m ecstatic,” said smiling Salisbury University junior Kate Shelley.  The 21- year-old biology major was carefully packing syringes, filters, fixative and other research tools. In two hours she and Dr. Gene Williams, her biology professor and mentor, were taking the first steps in loading a payload about the size of a basketball on a 35-foot Terrier-Orion sounding rocket at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Less than 24 hours later, at 5:33 a.m. Thursday, May 5,  the rocket was launched 76 miles into space for the first experiment of its kind:  examining the effects of microgravity on metastasizing cancer cells. “Not many students get to operate under microgravity conditions with cancer cells on a sounding rocket,” Shelley said.  An added plus was “collaborating with very talented engineering students at Old Dominion University.” “Everything about the project was new,” said Williams.  “No one has ever measured metastasis in space.  Salisbury University had never put a payload in space.” Although science has looked at the effects of weightlessness on such things as bone density, the biology professor said this was the first time anyone has examined the effect of weightlessness (or microgravity) on the metastasis of cancer. Such research could reveal valuable knowledge for cancer treatment of astronauts on space flights, of fighter jet pilots who are exposed to microgravity and even of victims on Earth. The experiment sounds simple; its execution was  not:  Using syringes, leukemia cells were passed through two membranes of different pore sizes mimicking the filtering process of the body.  The  SU scientists and students measured the ability of the cells to “deform” and pass through the membranes in the microgravity setting, contrasted to their ability under regular gravity conditions.  If more cancer cells were able to migrate in space, it would mean astronauts and others exposed to such conditions would be more susceptible.  If there were a decrease,  it might point to possible new approaches to treating metastasis, which is often fatal. Some two dozen students from ODU’s Department of Aerospace Engineering designed the instrument to hold and operate the syringes under flight conditions.  And timing was everything. The window of opportunity to conduct the experiment was only some 400 seconds as the rocket reached it apogee, said Williams.  After spending most of Wednesday at the Flight Center, SU team members returned around midnight and stayed through the launching.  Williams said the launch and retrieval went beautifully, the payload landing in the Atlantic Ocean 20 minutes from the recovery vessel.  A n evaluation of the experiment will be ongoing.  Students at the two universities have been collaborating  since last October, visiting one another’s campuses and meeting at points in  between including Wallops and Melfa, VA.  The project has given undergraduates the opportunity to colla Brett Newmanborate on meaningful research which is invaluable in their training as scientists and engineers and may also contribute to the field of cancer study, Williams said. The next launch is planned for 2006. Members of the SU team also included Dr. Robert Joyner, director of respiratory therapy, and student Jeannette Kerns.  Students at ODU are led by Drs. Robert Ash and Brett Newman . For more information contact SU Public Relations at 410-543-6030 or visit the SU Web site at

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