Colorado State Awarded $10 Million Nasa Research Center to Study Risks of Cancer in Astronauts

Note to Editors: Broadcast-quality audio, print-quality photographs, video and other NASA NSCOR background materials are available online at

Colorado State University was awarded a $9.7 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to establish a NASA Specialized Center of Research to investigate radiation risks that lead to cancer in astronauts. The center’s research has the potential of significantly advancing cancer research and treatment for pets and people.

"This remarkable science is about how to detect a human or animal at risk of developing cancer. If we can determine what the risk is, then maybe we can prevent the cancer," said Stephen Withrow, director of the Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State. "This is a very basic science-driven grant that looks at why cancer occurs and, in theory, how we predict risks or even treat specific types of cancer."

Researchers at Colorado State are being funded by NASA to develop innovative scientific approaches for understanding and estimating the risks of cancer from space radiation and, further, to identify genetic changes that are responsible for the development of radiation-induced leukemia.

"This research will help scientists understand and assess the risks of long-term cancer development associated with deep-space travel, but also has implications for the future diagnosis and treatment in people and animals here on earth," said Anthony Frank, vice president for research and information technology at Colorado State.

Sponsored by NASA’s Office of Biological and Physical Research, Colorado State’s Cancer Biology Group, the basic science arm of the university’s world-renowned Animal Cancer Center, is leading the research effort and partnering with teams at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston. The grant is a result of a new NASA initiative to establish research centers to study the risks associated with the unique radiation environment to which astronauts are exposed during deep-space travel, such as missions to Mars.

In particular, Colorado State researchers will study the development of acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, which occurs in bone marrow stem cells and is one of the earliest and most common types of cancer that results following radiation exposure.

"Our research team is looking at leukemia development and searching for molecular markers of pre-cancerous cells prior to the development of overt cancer. This will allow us to predict, in an individual, their risk of developing AML," said Robert Ullrich, director of the Cancer Biology Group at Colorado State and principal investigator of the project. "Once those specific alterations are identified, we hope to be able to determine possible steps to reduce that risk."

Hazardous radiation levels pose a serious occupational health risk for astronauts on long-duration missions, and the onset of cancer has been identified as one of the most serious negative effects of exposure to radiation in space. While the significance of this risk is recognized, there is uncertainty regarding risk estimates, information important to NASA program planning.

The Colorado State-led NSCOR will provide the needed quantitative data and the fundamental knowledge to understand the risk of developing leukemia following exposure to space radiation such as high-energy protons and heavy ions, or HZE, particles. The project will additionally focus on evaluating the impact of different radiation qualities and exposure times on the persistence, expansion and progression of cancer cells.

"Colorado State is very excited to receive this grant and lead this collaborative effort that will allow truly innovative investigations that advance cancer research," said Lance Perryman, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The NSCOR program was established to advance fundamental knowledge in biological and biomedical sciences and technology, with the ultimate application of this knowledge to enable safer human space flight and long-term planetary missions. NSCOR is expected to enhance NASA’s base of scholarship, skills and performance in the space biological and biomedical sciences and related technological areas, and also expand the pool of research scientists and engineers trained to meet the challenges ahead as the United States prepares for future human space exploration missions.

In addition to the Colorado State NSCOR, NASA also funded:

  • a center focused on the basic science of radiation exposure in space at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which has affiliate faculty with Colorado State’s Cancer Biology Program;
  • a center focused on the effects of radiation exposure on the central nervous system at Loma Linda University.

The Cancer Biology Group, a unit in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, is one of 14 Colorado State Programs of Research and Scholarly Excellence and one of five such programs located within the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Today’s announcement of the NASA Specialized Center of Research follows three other major federal funding awards to Colorado State totaling $56 million within the last month: one from the National Institutes of Health and two from the National Science Foundation to establish two other research centers at the university and partner on a third in Massachusetts.

Related Links: