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  • NASA and Medical Research article

    Resent (by permission) from Health InfoCom Network Newslist (MEDNEWS@ASUACAD)

    Volume 2, Number 23 June 6, 1989

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    How Space Flight has Held Medical Research


    An electrical pulse can make a muscle move. Knowing this, doctors have
    sometimes fitted appropriate patients with an electrical system in which nerve
    endings under the skin are connected by tiny platinum wires to minaturized
    power sources on the skin surface. A frequent movement of the limb to which
    the connecting wire is attached would tug at the implant, damaging the skin.
    This could lead to infection. NASA has solved this problem by redesigning the
    connector terminal on the skin. It has connected the implant to a miniscule
    grooved pin on top of the skin which accepts a fork-type connector from the
    outside power source, providing secure electrical contact. However, the
    connector is easily dislodged from the pin by any slight pull, preventing skin


    Hospital patients can move about more freely and yet provide the medical
    staff with continuous readings of their heartbeats and body temperatures
    because the patients wear space age wrist radios that transmit these readings
    to a hospital central station. This radio system is derived from equipment
    developed and used in the Mercury and Gemini mannned space flight programs.


    By swallowing a 1-inch by 1/4-inch bugged tablet, patients can keep medical
    personnel continuously informed about temperatures deep within their bodies.
    Local temperature increases can reveal infections. The unit, which is retained
    in the body for 5 days, can be adapted to report on intestinal presssure,
    stomach acidity, or chemical status of the gastrointestinal tract. After the
    unit is excreted, it can be recovered, sterilized, stored, and reused. Its
    battery can run for about 640 hours before needing replacement. The pill was
    originally developed for NASA studies of the effects of bedrest simulating the
    weightlessness of flight in space.


    NASA'S Mariner 9 mission in 1971 and 1972 showed Martian views that changed
    our conception of that planet. The pictures telecast to Earth were enhanced by
    computers to bring out details that would have otherwise been obscured or
    lost. The same techniques applied to X-rays are revealing much about the body
    that formerly could not be discerned, contributing significantly to diagnosis
    and treatment of disease or injury.


    Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) employs a magnetic field and radio waves
    to peer inside the body. Unlike X-rays, NMR can even see into bones. But NMR
    images are more difficult to interpret than X-rays, which has limited their
    usefulness. By applying the computerized image enhancement technology
    developed to read Earth resources satellite photographs, NASA was able to
    provide thematic "maps" of the human body, False color can be added to each
    type of tissue, making such problems as tumors or blood clots stand out
    sharply and clearly. NMR and image enhancement provide invaluable information
    to diagnostic physicians and surgeons, enabling them to provide better care to
    their patients.


    A device developed for medical studies of astronauts who are on long space
    missions is the basis for a miniaturized medical diagnostic system capable of
    performing 12 different blood analyses. Another attribute of the system is
    that it uses approximately one-tenth cubic centimeter of blood to do its work.
    This is about a fiftieth of the blood sample required for most conventional
    analyses. The system is especially attractive for use with infants, the
    elderly, and emergency room cases where minimum blood samples are available.


    Many youngsters participated in a NASA space project by capturing
    fireflies for the space agency. NASA researchers wanted the Luciferace found
    in fireflies to develop a machine to detect possible microorganisms on other
    planets. Luciferace produces light in the presence of adenosine triphosphate
    (ATP), which is a biochemical found in all living things. The NASA biochemical
    machine process for detection of extraterrestrial life has been adapted to
    human health uses in FLASH (Fast Luciferace Automated Assay Specimens for
    Hospitals), which analyzes bacteria in urine samples. In the assay, urine
    glows (becomes bioluminescent) if bacteria are in it, and quantitative
    information is obtained automatically by detecting and recording light given
    off by the urine sample. Luciferace is now artificially synthesized and
    available for widespread use.


    A machine for measuring human coordination, EPIC (Electronic Programmable
    Interactive Coorditester/Trainer) is another device developed from NASA
    technology. It is expected that many uses will be found, not only in
    biomedicine, rehabilitation, and the physiology of muscular coordination but
    also in job aptitude testing, law enforcement, and highway safety. In
    rehabilitation work, for example, test results can show progress or indicate
    need for remedial help.
    EPIC is derived from a NASA prototype to test pilot manipulative skills and
    determine effects of fatigue on their dexterity. In using EPIC, colored lights
    are flashed on a display panel. The person being tested, using hand and foot
    controls, tries to match the lights on his panel.
    The lights are constantly changed, calling for continuous reactions from
    the person being tested.


    Using space-proven high temperature-resistant polymers in a breathing
    machine is expected to be of significant benefit to sufferers from asthma,
    emphysema, and respiratory diseases. Spacecraft dry heat sterilization
    techniques which can be used without harm to the machine prevent the possible
    transfer of infectious microorganisms from one user to another. Machines
    currently used have parts that cannot withstand heat sterilization. As a
    result, chemical sterilizers are used.
    Chemical sterilizers are believed to be less reliable than heat and also
    may react with materials from which the machine is made to produce toxic
    (poisonous) products.


    A greatly improved pacemaker for heart patients uses many electronic and
    electrical components first developed for NASA spacecraft. This pacemaker uses
    a rechargeable battery rather than nuclear generated power, and therefore,
    emits no radioactivity. It is made of extremely durable components and is
    immune to electrical interference from such sources as car ignitions, radar.
    and microwave ovens. It is also one third the size and one half the weight of
    the conventional pacemaker, and it's easier to implant. The rechargeable
    battery stores enough energy to last as long as eight weeks, but doctors
    recommend a weekly 90-minute recharge. The wearer can readily recharge the
    battery at home using a portable charging console.
    The new pacemaker eliminates the need for surgery and hospitalization as is
    necessary about every two years to replace conventional pacemakers. Its
    smaller size and weight reduce patient discomfort. The pacemaker also does not
    create a large noticeable bulge along the wearers body.


    Based on teleoperator and robot technology developed for space-related
    programs, a voice-controlled wheelchair and its manipulator have been tested
    as a possible aid to paralyzed and other severely handicapped persons. The
    heart of the system is a voice-command analyzer which utilizes a minicomputer.
    The analyzer recognizes commands only in the patient's particular speech
    pattern. The computer translates commands into electrical signals which
    activate appropriate motors and cause the desired motion of chair or
    manipulator. The mainpulator arm can pick up objects, open doors, turn knobs,
    and perform a variety of other functions. The system responds to one word
    voice commands such as "go," "stop," "up," "down," "right," "left,"
    "backward," and "forward."


    A device which converts regular inkprint into a readable, vibrating tactile
    form enables blind persons to read almost anything in print, not just braille
    transcriptions. The device is called the OPTACON, or OPtical-to-TActile
    CONverter. It combines optical and electronic technology developed in
    aerospace research.
    The blind reader moves a miniature camera across a line of print with one
    hand, and with the fingers of the other hand senses a vibrating image of the
    letters the camera is viewing on a tactile array screen. For school use, the
    Optacon makes the instructional materials of the sighted available to the
    blind. It helps the sightless to obtain jobs, win promotions, and enter
    vocational areas once closed to them. A related spin-off of optical-
    electronic technology is the Paper Money Identifier, a small device the size
    of a cigarette pack which scans a piece of paper money, reacts to the
    different colors of the bill, and generates an audible signal identifying the


    A spinoff from miniaturized space circuitry, this AID automatic pulse
    generator can save thousands of people each year from death or brain damage.
    Monitoring the heartbeat continuously, the device recognizes the onset of
    fibrillation--a condition in which the heart's regular contractions change to
    spasmodic twitching which pumps no blood--and delivers a corrective electrical
    shock to restore rhythmic beating. The generator was developed by Medrad,
    Inc., and Intec Systems, Inc., both of Pittsburg.


    Straightening teeth is a difficult process requiring months, often years,
    of applying corrective pressure by means of arch wires-better known as braces-
    which may have to be changed several times in the course of treatment. A new
    type of arch wire material, called Nitinol, is helping to reduce the number of
    brace changes, due to its exceptional elasticity. An alloy of nickel and
    titanium, Nitinol was orginally developed for aerospace applications. Because
    of its ability to return to its original shape after bending, antennas or
    other hardware could be compacted effectively in a satellite during launch,
    and later expand to full size when in orbit. This same property allows braces
    made of Nitinol to exert continuous pull on teeth, reducing the frequency of
    office visits to change or adjust braces and, in some cases, actually trimming
    overall treatment time.


    NASA designs for advanced teleoperator systems have been applied to restore
    movement to the limbs of paralysis victims. They include electrically powered
    robot-type arms that can be moved smoothly and with dexterity. The arms can
    even be operated by tongue pressure on protruding vitamin-pill sized switches.
    The devices can be tailored to individual requirements potentially assisting
    thousands of paralytics or amputees. They can also be used for hazardous
    operations such as servicing nuclear reactors and handling of toxic or
    infectious material.


    Advances in electronics and miniaturization made possible by the space age
    have contributed much to progress in health services. A number of these were
    consolidated in a test hospital room for paralyzed or severely disabled
    patients. The devices permit remote control of communications systems and
    appliances for the comfort and recreation of bedridden patients.
    Selecting any of the several complete systems in the demonstration hospital
    room, the patient can dial and answer telephones, turn the pages of books,
    open and close curtains, activate and tune radios, television sets and
    intercoms, and turn a variety of appliances on or off.
    One of the systems uses the "sight switch" developed by NASA scientists for
    possible use by astronauts.
    The sight switch is actually two switches mounted on a pair of eyeglass
    frames--on the bows, near the eyes. Each switch has a small infrared source
    and a sensor which detects the difference in reflectivity between the iris and
    the white of the eye. To activitate the switch, the patient rotates his eye
    upward and sideways-to look at the sensor near the corner of his eye. Once
    adjusted for a specific individual, the switches are not operated by blinking
    or normal eye movement. It takes a pronounced oblique motion of the eye to
    trip the switch.
    Other devices incorporated in the demonstration room include a foot-
    operated switch, a panel switch, a breath switch, and a pneumatically operated
    switch. The ultra sensitive foot switch responds easily to very slight
    A patient retaining only the most limited body movement can often use a
    foot switch or a panel switch--two panels, one on each side of the patient's
    head. By rolling his head slightly to one side or the other, he operates one
    of the panel switches which are two air bags, one behind each ear.