While astronauts living in space are themselves subject to unhealthy lifestyles that result from a lack of gravity and sunlight (muscle and bone loss, sleep deprivation, and even depression), scientists back on earth have nevertheless used the extraordinary elements in space to make huge technological advances in healthcare.
MDA, Amgen, Fifty One Apparel, Alcon and more worked among the brightest stars of space exploration on earth and in space to keep astronauts safe and help people live healthier lives. Here, we look at the Top 10 medical breakthroughs made in space, for all mankind.
10. Eye surgery
Billions of people suffer with some kind of eye disorder, with up to 4bn wearing glasses. Many others choose to use contact lenses while some opt for laser-eye surgery to correct their eyesight.
Aided by the research of laser technology used in space, medical equipment manufacturer Alcon developed its Alcon LADARVision® 4000, used by opticians on Earth to monitor a patient’s eye and operate the laser scalpel.
9. Relieving the symptoms of menopause
One of the most unpleasant symptoms of the menopause are hot flashes, when a woman suddenly feels unbearably and inexplicably hot. Aside from being acutely uncomfortable, some women feel insecure and/or embarrassed by the visibility of this symptom, increasing anxiety and self-esteem.
Luckily, retail company Fifty One Apparel manufactures clothing designed with specific material to uphold temperature-regulation, which is based on spacesuits.
In the 1980s, NASA’s Johnson Space Center worked together with the Triangle Research and Development Corporation to experiment with new materials that would maintain a steady temperature for spacesuits.
8. Improving balance
Patients suffering from a stroke, spinal cord injuries or motor decline need additional support with their balance – as do astronauts in zero gravity.
NASA’s preflight and postflight study of eye movement reactions (EMR) has led to quicker, inexpensive identification and treatment of patients with balance problems. What’s more, patients and astronauts can be trained to manage dizziness with a non-pharmacological, computerised method.
In the USA, over 1m people a year are diagnosed with shingles, a condition affecting the nervous system caused by the chickenpox virus.
Scientists from NASA and the University of Colorado teamed up to work together and find a cure. Together, they detected VZV DNA, which causes chickenpox, in the saliva of astronauts during spaceflight and built a virus detection kit. Now, detection of the virus can be completed in less than one hour and the technology is being used to detect other viruses, too.
On Earth, bone health can be affected by injury or malnutrition. In space, bone health deteriorates due to loss, which accelerates in the zero-gravity atmosphere with the lack of normal weight-bearing activities human bodies are used to. Astronauts follow a specific nutritional programme and follow strict exercises to reduce the impact. Researchers have studied bone loss data carefully, not only to support astronauts in space, but also to aid lives on earth.
Experiments using the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module (CBTM) have studied bone remodelling with Amgen, a California-based biopharmaceutical company, investigating bone loss and muscle atrophy.
Ultrasounds are most commonly used to examine pregnant women and unborn babies, but ultrasound technology is also used to assess various conditions, such as kidney stones, bone fractures and collapsed lungs.
The National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) built ultrasound technology used by astronauts, allowing doctors in space to care for their fellow passenger patients without needing the help of doctors on Earth.
Canadarm was developed by MDA for the US Space Shuttle Program, which can lift heavy weights and complete complicated maintenance on board the International Space Station. This led to the creation of the neuroArm, a robot that is able to perform surgery within magnetic resonance machines (MRI scanners).
Space manufacturing company MDA worked with a team from the University of Calgary to develop the technology to allow surgeons to perform surgeries while a patient was inside an MRI machine, using a robot hand as capable as a human one.
3. Water purification
Our world is a blue planet from space – but water is one thing space is largely lacking.
Sadly, many humans on earth still lack access to clean water. However, research for ensuring astronauts had a supply of clean water has helped communities on earth, too. The Water Security Corporation teamed up with NASA to use its water filtration and purification system technology, developed for use on space stations, across the world.
One thing scientists must look out for prior to spaceflight is the health of the astronauts. If one member of the crew has an illness that spreads to the rest of the passengers during their mission, everyone could be at risk of becoming sick.
Scientists discovered that certain bacteria found in Salmonella could become more infectious during spaceflight. Salmonella kills over 400 people in the USA each year, as well as causing many hospitalisations.
Space scientists researched Salmonella and how to combat its deadly bacterial pathogens in confined, low-gravity spaces – which led to a wider understanding of Salmonella’s genetic pathway and general microbial vaccine development.
1. Breast cancer detection
The second leading cancer-related cause of death in women is breast cancer. Every year, though, treatment for the disease becomes increasingly efficient.
The Canadian Space Agency uses robotic arms for heavy-lifting and complex manoeuvring on its space station – and an opportunity was spotted for the space equipment to be used in surgery for patients with breast cancer: the Image-Guided Autonomous Robot (IGAR) has been refocused inside MRI machines to assist healthcare professionals in the location of breast cancer. IGAR can help increase surgeons’ precision during biopsies.