Exploring the final frontier to advance cancer research

Kristine Ferrone has survived Mars – or a simulation of the Red
Planet, anyway.

During the summer of 2009, Kristine Ferrone and five other
volunteers lived for a month in a cramped habitat built on the edge of
a 39-million-year-old crater carved out by a meteorite. The barren
Canadian island site was about as close as you can get to a Mars-like
environment on Earth.

The simulation was an opportunity to conduct geophysical
experiments, try out laser therapy to relieve symptoms of physical
exertion, and learn about the challenges of minor injuries and illness
in such a stark environment.

“This unique simulation experience was the closest mindset to being
in space,’’ Ferrone says. “It was invaluable. I go back and draw from
it often.”

A chance to curb radiation effects

A third-year doctoral student in our Medical Physics graduate
program, Ferrone is conducting research into radiation shielding that
she believes could yield benefits for future astronaut pioneers
exploring beyond low-Earth orbit, as well as cancer patients here on
Earth who are undergoing radiation therapy.

A 10-year NASA veteran, Ferrone has worked as a NASA flight
controller for the International Space Station and continues working
part-time as a systems engineer for The Aerospace Corporation during
her graduate study. In addition to an undergraduate degree in
astrophysics, she’s earned three master’s degrees – in space
architecture, sports medicine and business administration.

“Human space flight is what I’ve been doing my whole career,’’ she
says. “The research I’m doing now aims to reduce the cancer risk for
astronauts from space radiation. That’s the end game.’’

Ferrone’s advisors, Charles
Willis, Ph.D.
, associate professor in Imaging Physics, and Stephen Kry, Ph.D., associate professor in
Radiation Physics, provide guidance for her dissertation research.
Willis, also a former NASA researcher, was one of only three
candidates to make the final cut to be an alternate payload specialist
astronaut in the late 1980s. Today his career at MD Anderson involves optimizing digital
radiography – ultimately to make the best image for our doctors while
using the least amount of radiation necessary for our patients. Not
unlike the goal of Ferrone’s research.

Tackling a life-threatening environment

Ferrone hopes to be accepted into NASA’s astronaut program one day.
She applied in 2008, 2011 and 2016. She expects the addition of a
Ph.D. to her qualifications to significantly increase her chances.

To be prepared for any emergency thrown her way, Ferrone volunteers
with the Pasadena Fire Department and flies for the Coast Guard
Auxiliary. “It keeps me mentally sharp. It would be the same on a
space mission: You throw on your gear and go into a life-threatening
environment. And it’s fun!”

Would she be game for a trip to the real Mars?

“If I had the chance, I would go,’’ she says. But she realizes there
are significant obstacles to human travel to Mars becoming a reality
in time for her to have a shot.

Linking space exploration and cancer research

In the meantime, Ferrone hopes her research will one day translate
into benefits for space travelers as well as cancer patients.

“It’s pleasantly surprising how many things can translate from MD Anderson-related research to the microcosm
of space radiation,” she says. “It takes an oddball person like me to
see the connection. But there’s a lot we can learn from each other.”

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger,
MD Anderson’s quarterly publication
for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.

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