How NASA Ingenuity Fuels New Medical Technology


Is Medical Technology Actually Rocket Science?

We usually take for granted just how much new technology the space program (NASA) has yielded and how it affects our daily live in positive ways. Sure there’s Tang, cosmetics and freeze dried food technology, but there is a tremendous amount of science and technology that has emerged from our nations space program that has specifically benefited Medical Science and Research.

nasa-home-cityFor a fun interactive look at space innovations that benefit our daily lives, check out Nasa City and Nasa@Home.


New Technology for Medicine

The physical affects of zero gravity on the astronauts presented new challenges not seen on Earth. This led to tremendous growth of new medical technologies. At the time, we didn’t realize these breakthroughs would also benefit the medical community here on Earth.

Looking back on the early days of Space Exploration, we can appreciate all the medical advances that were adapted from Space Technology.

Even though NASA has changed their direction in respect to the Space Shuttle Program, the International Space Station (ISS) continues to present a unique laboratory for the Medical Community.

“There are many new frontiers and considerable new knowledge that medical researchers can gain from using the space station,” says Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and NIH’s liaison with NASA.

Dr. Katz says. “Research on the space station will help generate better understanding of how weightlessness affects the bone, muscle, and inner ear systems.”

Medical knowledge and capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds because of space exploration and the equipment and techniques developed for it. Temperature-lowering “cool suits” and remote health-monitoring sensors are just two examples of latest tech adapted from space suits. Medical imaging technologies and ultrasound techniques are possible because of NASA’s innovations.



But, there are many more Medical Products which were adapted from the Space Program.

NASA Spinoffs

medical-researchDigital Imaging Breast Biopsy System — A non-surgical system developed with Space Telescope Technology that greatly reduces the time, cost, pain, and other effects associated with traditional surgical biopsies.



Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) – Red light-emitting diodes are used to grow plants in space. However, they are now used for relieving minor muscle and joint pain, arthritis, stiffness, and muscle spasms, and also promotes muscle relaxation and increases local blood circulation.

Infrared Ear Thermometers – We’ve all used these to take either our own temperature or our kids. This was adapted from infrared astronomy science NASA uses to measure the temperature of stars and planets.

Artificial Limbs – NASA’s continuos innovations in robotics and shock-absorption/comfort materials enable new and improved solutions for animal and human prostheses.

wheelchairTalking Wheelchair – The Versatile Portable Speech Prosthesis (VPSP) was originally developed for pilots to assist them in critical aircraft emergencies. The VPSP would free the pilot from having to monitor several instruments at once by providing a synthesized voice readout of aircraft altitude, airspeed, descent rate, etc. VPSP now offers the 1.5 million people who have lost hearing as a result stroke or physical handicap the ability to speak via a joystick.

Voice-Controlled Wheelchairs – Voice-controlled wheelchairs make use of Nasa robot voice recognition and are fitted with microcomputers that can respond to oral commands. The chairs can also help people with severe disabilities to perform daily tasks such as turning on appliances.

Laser Angioplasty — The Excimer Laser is a “cool” type of laser which offers precise non-surgical cleanings of clogged arteries with fewer complications than balloon angioplasty.

Advanced Ventilator Technology – The necessity for remote medical care is present in both NASA and the military. This field, called telemedicine, blends the science of advanced communications with innovative medical devices and techniques to allow caregivers with limited or no medical experience to support a patient’s needs. One such device, the Impact Model 754-AP ventilator, can basically operate itself. It can be used for critical patients in both space and the battle field to keep them alive until they can reach a hospital.

Ultrasound Skin Damage Assesment — An advanced ultrasound instrument to immediately assess depth of skin damage, improving patient treatment and saving lives in serious burn cases.



FluoroScan Imaging System – Was originally developed by NASA for use in x-ray astronomy, where imaging at extremely low x-ray intensity was necessary. It allows for a continuous low intensity, x-ray video image which is ideal for emergency applications. It is also well suited for veterinary medicine since it is not necessary to sedate the patient.

Medical Monitor – Originally designed to monitor the vital signs of astronauts in space, this specialized monitor was adapted to incorporate patient records and vital signs into a live database accessible by doctors on the network. Lab test results, administrative records or any type of electronic report or chart can be accessed from patients bedside or the doctors office.

Life-Saving Heart Technology – From Nasa’s work in telemetry – wireless control of devices – it possible for a  physician to communicate with a pacemaker via a wireless device held over the patient’s chest.

Home Blood Pressure Kits – When Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space some 37 years ago, Nasa scientists had to invent a device to monitor his blood pressure during blast off. These devises were quickly adapted for home use.

Fetus Monitor – First created for measuring astronaut’s blood pressure and temperature, tiny transmitters are now used to monitor the health of fetuses in the womb.

Cool Suits – First used by NASA for the Apollo missions, is now helping multiple sclerosis patients manage their disease. These custom made suits circulates coolant to lower the body temperature. They can dramatically improves symptoms of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and other conditions.

Fighting Cancer With Space Technology

cancer-researchThe Early Detection Research Network, an initiative of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), brings together dozens of institutions to help accelerate the translation of biomarker information into clinical applications and to evaluate new ways of testing cancer in its earliest stages and for cancer risk.

The EDRN is a group of biomedical investigators who share data on cancer biomarkers, chemical or genetic signatures related to specific cancers. Their goal is to combine all their research data into a single, searchable network, with the goal of translating their collective research into techniques for early diagnosis of cancer or cancer risk.

What is a Biomarker?

Biomarkers (short for biological markers) are biological measures of a biological state. By definition, a biomarker is “a characteristic that is objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes or pharmacological responses to a therapeutic intervention”.

NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) uses artificial intelligence to codified, stored and distributed the hundreds of petabytes of data sent from spacecraft to scientists across the globe. Working together, JPL and EDRN’s have discovered six new cancer biomarkers and nine biomarkers for use in Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments labs. The FDA has approved each of these biomarkers for use in cancer research which has resulted in more than 1 million patient diagnostic tests worldwide.

“From a NASA standpoint, there are significant opportunities to develop new data science capabilities that can support both the mission of exploring space and cancer research using common methodological approaches,” Daniel Crichton (JPL Project Manager) said. “We have a great opportunity to perfect those techniques and grow JPL’s data science technologies, while serving our nation”.

As JPL and NCI’s collaboration continues, advances will include image recognition capabilities, such as helping EDRN archive images of cancer specimens. Those images could be analyzed by computer vision, which is currently used to spot similarities in star clusters and other astrophysics research.

“In the near future,” Crichton said, “machine learning algorithms could compare a CT scan with an archive of similar images, searching for early signs of cancer based on a patient’s age, ethnic background and other demographics”.

“As we develop more automated methods for detecting and classifying features in images, we see great opportunities for enhancing data discovery,” Crichton said. “We have examples where algorithms for detection of features in astronomy images have been transferred to biology and vice-versa.”



Emerging Technology

“Many of the famous discoveries in scientific history were by accident. I think it is important to continue pure scientific research which broadens our horizons,” explains Dr. Daniel McCarter, director of clinical affairs, University of Virginia’s Department of Family Medicine in Charlottesville, Va.

As often happens in Science and Tech, collaboration inevitably yields greater results. Emerging Technology fuels new Scientific discoveries, old data can be revisited with expanded capability and fresh perspective.

Who knew that by overcoming the challenges of space travel, we would have so many breakthroughs here on Earth.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”  ― Carl Sagan

William Shatner Gives Shout Out to NASA Spinoffs

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