Space, the final health care frontier

Photo by NASA

Those of us who live in Texas’ urban centers are lucky. If we get sick or injured, we have access to great doctors and hospitals equipped with advanced medical technology.

Many, though, aren’t so lucky. Some Texans live in places so remote, they might as well be outer space. In fact, providing health care in outer space is not unlike caring for the inhabitants of a remote small town.

In these places, medical personnel sometimes aren’t up to date on the latest procedures. Facilities are often inadequate, and evacuation can be dangerous or impossible. There’s sometimes no cellphone service or internet connectivity, and often not enough power to operate medical devices.

Luckily, many of the medical innovations that we’re developing for astronauts in space have the potential to improve the practice of medicine on Earth.

Our mission at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), which is funded by NASA and housed at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is to advance research and technology that will keep astronauts healthy in space. These health care solutions for space are portable, safe and, because they’re designed for extreme environments, work anywhere on Earth. They’re also designed to be operated with minimal training and are likely to be affordable.

Astronauts are already healthy individuals, selected for their outstanding physical and mental resilience. But in space, microgravity causes their bones, muscle and hearts to atrophy, and they become vulnerable to health problems suffered by people on Earth.

For instance, when bones degrade in microgravity, they release minerals that can accumulate in the kidneys, making astronauts prone to kidney stones. A painful kidney stone can debilitate an astronaut, endangering the mission and possibly the safety of the crew.

NSBRI supported the development of an ultrasound-based medical device that can visualize kidney stones and “push” the stones using sound waves to locations within the kidney where they can be more readily cleared with normal urination. This technology has been successfully used on Earth, and because the power output required to push kidney stones is low, the device can safely be used by non-physicians in diverse settings.

In space, reduced gravity also induces a fluid shift away from the lower parts of the body and toward the head. Observed symptoms suggest that there may be increased pressure on the brain in space, but astronauts there cannot get an MRI scan or undergo the clinically accepted method to assess brain pressure, which is an invasive procedure.

At NSBRI, we’re evaluating several new medical devices that measure pressure on the brain using non-invasive approaches, and so far the results are promising. On Earth, current invasive methods of measuring pressure on the brain are considered risky and only used in severe cases, and MRI scans are expensive and time-consuming. The non-invasive devices being developed for space could also be used on Earth — and at a lower cost than today’s standard of care.

Space exploration is difficult and risky, but by learning to monitor and treat astronauts in space, we’re advancing medical care for all.

Fifty-two years ago, our nation accepted President John F. Kennedy’s seemingly impossible challenge — issued here in Houston — to safely put a man on the moon. It’s time to again set course for great heights and improve our lives here on Earth and beyond.

Dorit Donoviel

Deputy chief scientist at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute