The comparison is perhaps unexpected, but the findings show potential: astronauts experience similar physical stress in spaceflight as cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy. While researchers behind the study, published recently in the journal Cell, were rightfully a bit surprised at this finding, they hope that their conclusions can shed light on how cancer patients’ may improve their tolerance to anti-cancer treatments.
Senior author Jessica Scott researches exercise physiology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's Exercise Oncology Service. She commented, "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.” Additionally, she explained, “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."
Interestingly, although there is a clear similarity in the symptoms that both populations experience, astronauts often are given quite different advice to prepare for their spaceflights than the advice given to cancer patients preparing for anti-cancer treatments. While astronauts undergo intense physical training to improve their cardiorespiratory stamina both pre and post-space missions, cancer patients are usually advised to rest and avoid exercise. But is that really the most appropriate program that physicians can prescribe to their patients? The authors of this study think not.
Instead of avoiding physical activity, they suggest following the strategy behind an astronaut’s training program, but obviously to a modified level. Physical activity could include slow walking, for example, before, during, and after treatments. The researchers say this could reduce the long-term impact on patients’ cardiorespiratory systems.
In accordance with this idea, the team of researchers has developed a program whereby cancer patients are invited to participate in a home-based study in which they receive in-home treadmills and video call software to assist in their practice and monitoring of physical activity.
"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. We really need to do a lot more research and a lot more work, 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."