Space exploration is reinventing healthcare
The spirit of the Apollo program inspired us to tackle a huge challenge as one species, to test our limits, work together and sacrifice in order to achieve great heights. The benefits are numerous including medical breakthroughs enabled by space technology advances.
Discoveries in space robotics and new materials propelled the field of prosthetics, improving the quality of life for many. In my own backyard Drs. Michael DeBakey and George Noon worked with NASA engineers to develop the first Left Ventricular Assist Device that saved the lives of thousands awaiting heart transplants. Millions of cancer patients depend on the digital imaging techniques developed by the space program to enhance MRI and computerized tomography (CT) scans so that we can detect tumors early, or better yet, that there are not any to find at all.
Though many do not realize it, humans have been living and working in space continuously for the past two decades. The conditions of spaceflight have accelerated our ability to study progressive degenerative diseases. This novel paradigm of understanding human physiology under the stresses of living in space holds great promise for new sources of medical breakthroughs for Earth.
Although astronauts are carefully selected to be exceptionally healthy and exhibit peak physical and mental performance, after only four to six months in space, they can develop numerous medical conditions. Without appropriate exercise, they lose bone and muscle mass. They become prone to developing kidney stones. Their hearts become deconditioned. Their blood vessels stiffen. A subset of astronauts develop a swelling of the optic nerve and possibly an increase in pressure on the brain. Even dormant viruses become activated, alongside changes to the immune system. There is a sense of urgency to solve these problems if we are to send humans to Mars and return them safely in the next decade or two.
This is why NASA is investing in cutting-edge research for human health and performance including high-risk high-reward approaches funded through the Translational Research institute for Space Health (TRISH).
Supporting potentially ground-breaking innovations requires a leap of faith in the right direction.
Keeping astronauts healthy during deep space exploration missions — where there are no hospitals and no medical specialists — requires a different paradigm for healthcare. Astronauts are typically engineers and scientists, and only occasionally physicians.
On the way to Mars, when communications with Earth will be limited, they could be forced to act as both patients and healthcare providers. If a medical condition is allowed to progress when they are millions of miles away from Earth, the situation could become catastrophic.
Therefore, astronauts will need to detect even the most subtle changes in their own health status early enough to prevent disease. This requires a healthcare paradigm of predicting, preventing and mitigating ailments by intervening early.
This means enabling monitoring, diagnostic and therapeutic medical capabilities that are simple to use, safe, robust and miniaturized. Additionally, what will work in a small spacecraft in the hands of an engineer is also likely to work in a community clinic with limited resources. Or even in our homes. This different approach to healthcare can help save lives and reduce costs — at a global level.
Space demands the best in healthcare innovations, focusing on prevention and early intervention using smart, creative solutions. On a mission to Mars, blood tests will be done in a matter of minutes, by the patient, on a single drop of blood. A trained and adaptive computer algorithm will track health status based on a variety of physiological parameters and alert astronauts when important deviations from normal become evident.
Automated eye exams will be performed by the astronauts on themselves and images will be analyzed by a computer for changes. Customized medications will be tailor-made for the patient on the spot. If a minor medical procedure is required, the caregiver will learn and practice beforehand using augmented reality tools and software simulations adjusted for zero-gravity.
Kidney stones will be found early and treated quickly and painlessly using ultrasound to “push” them out of the kidney so they can be cleared naturally with urination. Sleep and mood will be improved using sound stimulation and health will be improved by individualized diets which will be enriched with high-nutrient plants grown efficiently within a small footprint. Most importantly, all these advances have clear and important applications on Earth.
Space exploration has already yielded hundreds of inventions that filled our arsenal for fighting diseases. To land women and men on Mars and return them healthy, we must reinvent healthcare. The positive consequences of this work will impact all of humanity. The spirit of Apollo is alive and well in space health research today. And for science, medicine and technology pioneers, our most important work is still ahead.
Dorit Donoviel, Ph.D. is the director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, a NASA-funded institution which enables innovative technologies and approaches to safeguard astronauts’ health during deep space exploration missions. Donoviel is also associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology and the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
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