While NASA’s most prominent goal is to push the boundaries of human exploration, incidental advancements to the medical field resulting from space exploration research tend to go unnoticed. From wireless headsets to CAT scans, many inventions we take for granted would not be around if not for technology originally intended for spaceflight.
Various medical advancements have been invented by applying technology designed for space exploration to human physiology. For example, physicians and engineers collaborated at Johnson Space Center to invent the Left Ventricular Assist Device, a pump implanted in advanced heart failure patients awaiting heart transplants, using the design features of fuel pumps in the Space Shuttle. Since the flow of blood in the body has similar characteristics to that of fluid flowing through rocket engines, engineers solved the problem of blood clotting in stagnant areas of the device by using the same fluid dynamic technology that was used for the Space Shuttle main engine.
Another recent example of space technology being used on Earth was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the use of telemedicine increased by over 3000 percent in just one year. Although the staggering rise in telemedicine usage is a new phenomenon, technology involved in sending physiological data from astronauts in spaceflight to Earth via telemetry has been in use by NASA for about 50 years.
Preserving astronauts’ health as well as diagnosing and treating them while in space presents a major obstacle to spaceflight. New technology was used in the 1960s to relay monitored health information from astronauts to doctors and scientists back on Earth. It has since been translated so that physicians can care for patients remotely. Meanwhile, NASA continues to use telemedicine aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and this technology will be an important component of medical care on future missions to the Moon and Mars.
At the same time, many new and exciting advances in healthcare are being investigated on the ISS, where collaborative research between 15 countries has been ongoing for 20 consecutive years. Freedom from the hold of gravity makes the ISS a unique environment for medical innovation. For example, researchers are investigating if culturing endothelial cells in microgravity represents a realistic model for normal endothelial cell growth in vivo. Endothelial cells cultured in microgravity demonstrated the same cytoskeletal changes and growth rate seen in the normal endothelium of blood vessels.
Moreover, these cultures remain in an accurate physiologic state for up to three months after being brought down to Earth, meaning they could still be used for experimentation. If this model proves similar enough to that of normal endothelium, it could facilitate advancements in anti-angiogenic cancer drugs, such as Angiex, by creating a realistic endothelium on which to test the drugs’ toxic effects. It would also decrease the need for animal testing of drugs and allow for more accurate results that could be expected in real patients.
The lack of load-bearing in space due to microgravity can cause problems for astronauts’ musculoskeletal systems. After returning to Earth, astronauts often find themselves diagnosed with disuse osteoporosis, characterized by a decrease in bone and cartilage density as well as muscle mass due to the absence of weight-bearing on the bones. To combat this, astronauts on the ISS have exercise machines that can simulate body weight, preventing bone breakdown.
Many ongoing research projects aim to address this problem, with downstream effects that could benefit patients with musculoskeletal diseases on Earth. A current study is testing engineered cartilage tissue that is able to supply itself with miRNA responsive to weight-bearing stimulation, preventing decay that would be seen without mechanical stimulation in space. If this engineered cartilage proves functional, it could help many patients on earth with cartilage degeneration.
The draw to explore our solar system has always been a driving force for scientists. With missions planned to bring astronauts to the Moon and Mars, and companies like SpaceX sending private citizens to space, there is no sign of progress slowing down. Such endeavors bring not only engineering achievements to space travel, but also benefit medical patients back on Earth.