The key to beating cancer could be growing plants in space, suggests new research. Plants have been found to release different chemicals when cultivated in zero gravity, offering hope of finding cures for a host of diseases from Alzheimer's to cystic fibrosis.

Scientists are working with astronauts on the International Space Station using specialized water, soil and light techniques to develop a variety of drugs. They are doing work right now in pharmaceuticals – in cancer, in Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis, etc. They are very difficult, complex diseases.

Microgravity

Researchers believes growing plants in microgravity will unlock their full "genetic potential. Plants have a genetic reservoir at their disposal they can use to help them contend with conditions they are faced with.

The teams have already sent Madagascar Periwinkle and Valerian seeds into orbit – known for their anti-cancer and anti-anxiety properties respectively. They are hoping to illicit changes in the former that force it to produce more beneficial compounds or perhaps more effective ones – than current small amounts.

The former is already available as a supplement in any local pharmacy. Prof Chappell, of Kentucky University, plans to germinate them in orbit to see what changes micro-gravity will trigger.

They fundamentally believe in future there will be things manufactured in space – whether it be materials, medical devices, biological products, etc. that will ultimately save lives on Earth. Prof Chappell is confident sending plants to space can increase their ability to produce healing properties.

Whether it's the use of aloe to soothe a sunburn, or ginger to calm an upset stomach, plants have long been a go-to source for medicinal applications. In modern history, many of our blockbuster drugs have humble beginnings in plants.

The next step is to bring these plants back to earth and look at them for their chemistry to tease out unique chemicals for chemotherapy, antimicrobial and neurological conditions.

Co-researcher Dr. Chase Kempinski, a plant physiology consultant to Space Tango, develops the media concoctions of hormones, salts and other necessities that the plants need to grow and thrive.

When plants are "stressed," they pull from a genetic reservoir to produce compounds that allow them to adapt and survive. Over hundreds of millions of years, plants have used this genetic potential to adapt to environmental change here on earth.

By sending plants up for a ride on the International Space Station, the team is eliminating one core, constant force to which plants are well-adapted gravity. Understanding how plants react in an environment where the traditional stress of gravity is removed provides insights on what may have driven those adaptations and how researchers can optimize medicinal applications or crop production for food.