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Out-of-This-World Medical Devices Inspired by Space

  • The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing has got us thinking about the wonders of space—including medical devices and diagnostics that have evolved from NASA research and other space missions. Technologies have to be robust to withstand the rigors of space.  Here are some extraordinary accomplishments that have helped advance medicine here on Earth.

  • In the late 1970s Electro-Nucleonics Inc. developed a means of testing blood for concentrations of calcium, cholesterol, glucose, and other components in 30 seconds, and called it Gemeni, according to NASA archives.

    The company was later acquired by Pharmacia AB, which then sold the clinical chemistry and centrifuge segments to Alfa Schiapparelli Wassermann. According to Alfa Wassermann's timeline, the GEMENI was “the first clinical chemistry analyzer to bring microprocessor-based testing into the hospital.”


    Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
  • Impact Instrumentation Inc. and NASA worked together to explore remote medicine in space, looking into whether Impact’s Model 754 medical ventilator could be transformed into a remote-controlled device, according to NASA archives. Efforts yielded “closed-loop capabilities” for Model 754-AP and eventually to the Uni-Vent 731 Series of portable ventilators for prehospital treatment and transport and in the hospital. 

    Impact Instrumentation was later acquired by Zoll in 2014, and Elijah A. White, president of Zoll Resuscitation, told MD+DI that “the 731 Series Ventilators are now proudly part of Zoll’s portfolio, with the technology actively being used today by services and organizations around the world.”

    According to Zoll’s Web site, the ventilators employ “Smart Help technology,” which “enables users to quickly resolve an alarm with simple on-screen prompts.”

  • Ok this reference gets a bit sticky due to all of the acquisitions – but it’s a candidate none the less. In 2007 Abbott Medical Optics acquired Irvine-based IntraLase Corp. for $808 million. This acquisition allowed AMO to combine IntraLase technology for cutting a flap in the cornea with AMO technology for reshaping the cornea. NASA would then go on to approve this all-laser LASIK for use on astronauts. The procedure would eventually be acquired by Johnson & Johnson when it picked up AMO from Abbott Laboratories for $4 billion.

  • In 2016, Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU; Provo, UT) revealed their plans working with NASA to use origami principles in spacecraft design. The BYU researchers said they would use these same related origami techniques to fashion surgical tools that are so small they can be inserted into holes in the skin that can heal without sutures. The university has licensed the technology to robotic surgery pioneer Intuitive Surgical.


  • In 2015, Scientists at NASA Ames Research Center announced a collaboration with Mayo Clinic to apply nanotechnology-enabled deep brain stimulation to treat diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to obsessive compulsive disorder and obesity. NASA Ames researcher Russell J. Andrews, MD provided an overview of the group’s efforts building a deep brain stimulation device that makes use of carbon nanofiber pads at the International Society 12th World Congress.

  • Do cells behave differently at microgravity, and can that environment be used to achieve what has been impossible on earth? NASA and its tech partners are hoping to answer these questions and more during this week’s trip to the International Space Station on the 18th SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission.

    Techshot’s BioFabrication Facility (BFF) seeks to bioprint in space those tissues that have been difficult to print on Earth, such as such as capillary structures. BFF is being used along with Techshot’s bioreactor cassettes for tissue incubation. (The company previously worked with NASA on a bone densitometer suitable for use in space.)

    Cell Science-02 will be looking microgravity’s influence on bone healing and tissue regeneration. The study findings could lead to solutions for minimizing bone density loss in astronauts as well as ideas to encourage bone regeneration and to treat osteoporosis on Earth.

    Image by WikiImages from Pixabay
  • James Waldie and Gordon Cable founded Human Aerospace in Adelaide, South Australia, in 2019 to ensure technologies developed from future space explorations also benefit life on Earth.

    “I think people forget all of the research and money that’s spent on space has a huge amount of return on investment in terms of the technology that’s useful on Earth as well,” said Cable, who is shown above during a Mars mission simulation.

    Waldie has worked with NASA and the European Space Agency creating compression apparel, including skin suits worn at the International Space Station, to enhance astronaut physiology by preventing bone mineral loss.

    Cable is a specialist in aerospace medicine and provides advice to medical professionals about space physiology and space medicine.

    Human Aerospace draws on the pair’s combined knowledge for projects including the improvement of vascular flow in patients with circulatory issues. Waldie and Cable have prototyped a device using their experience in space that could help people suffering from poor circulation due to diabetes, for example.

    Cable said he also wants to provide some expertise to the newly formed Australian Space Agency in Adelaide.

    “Whilst Human Aerospace isn’t a primary focus of the agency, I think there are a lot of researchers and workers in the field who, with our assistance, can collaborate and provide the Australian Space Agency with a boost through medical research,” he said. “There are a lot of space startups in the industry here in South Australia, the space industry is quite vibrant, and we wanted (Human Aerospace) to be available to provide input when required.”

    Cable said he and Waldie would like to establish the Human Aerospace office at the new Lot Fourteen innovation hub in Adelaide. The startup and innovation precinct is also home to the Australian Space Agency and many of the space companies in South Australia’s growing space industry ecosystem.

  • Over the course of more than 40 Small Business Innovation Research contracts since the 1980s, many at Glenn Research Center, NASA has helped Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based Thermacore advance the technology of heat pipes, a tool used to move heat so it can dissipate safely. In the last decade or so, the NASA-improved heat pipes have been adapted to medical uses, including in bipolar forceps used in brain surgery.

  • Johnson Space Center, Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI, and Houston, TX-based Wyle Laboratories collaborated on NASA's Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM) experiment, which developed revolutionary medical ultrasound diagnostic techniques for long-distance use. Mediphan, a Canadian company with U.S. operations in Springfield, New Jersey, drew on NASA expertise to create frame-grabber and data archiving technology that enables ultrasound users with minimal training to send diagnostic-quality ultrasound images and video to medical professionals via the Internet in near-real time-allowing patients as varied as professional athletes, Olympians, and mountain climbers to receive medical attention as soon as it is needed. In the photo above, the device is being used at the International Space Station.

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