Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Developing Space/Earth Medicine

The “Computer Assisted Medical Diagnosis and Surgery System” (CAMDASS) developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) provides just-in-time medical expertise to astronauts. All the astronaut needs to do is put on a stereo head-mounted display complete with 3D guidance to be able to diagnose problems.

To do an ultrasound examination, an ultrasound device is linked with CAMDASS and with the patient’s body registered to the camera. Then the display is calibrated to each wearer’s vision. Next, 3D augmented reality cue cards are displayed in the headset to guide the wearer. This is accomplished by matching points on a virtual human and the registered patient. The wearer can see the ultrasound images and can use speech recognition to allow hands-free control.

The use of CAMDASS right now is focused on ultrasound examinations, but in principle could guide other procedures. Ultrasound is leading the way because it is a versatile and effective medical diagnostic tool and is already available on the International Space Station.

The prototype has been tested for usability at Saint-Pierre University Hospital in Brussels, Belgium with medical and nursing students, Belgium Red Cross, and paramedic staff. It is thought that once CAMDASS is completely tested, it might also be used as part of a telemedicine system to provide remote medical assistance via satellites and could be deployed as a self-sufficient tool for emergency responders and eventually used in space.

The research was funded by ESA’s Basic Technology Research Programme with the prototype developed by a consortium led by Space Applications Service NV in Belgium with support from the Technical University of Munich and DKFZ German Cancer Research Centre.

In another NASA research effort as described in an article published by NASA’s Lunarscience Institute, important research developments are happening that involve NASA biocapsules. The researchers at the Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames have been searching for more medical technology that could be effectively used by astronauts.

Researchers working on the biocapsules now under development are looking for ways to effectively deliver doses of medicine one time, over days, and even over years while astronauts are in space and enable the astronauts to be treated in space without even knowing that the treatment was happening.

For example, one of the potential uses for biocapsules would be to treat massive blasts of radiation while astronauts are in space. The biocapsule could be implanted under the astronaut’s skin and could work without the astronauts even knowing there was a health risk coming from excessive amounts of radiation suddenly blasted out in space.

This isn’t science fiction, since we already use a hormone G-CSF to treat cancer patients who are receiving radiation treatments. So it was a small jump to put these cells in a capsule. Without using G-CSF, an astronaut’s immune system might not recover if exposed to massive doses of radiation.

However, NASA’s biocapsule also has important medical applications on Earth. One of the main targets for the biocapsule is to treat diabetes and could be especially important for those patients that need insulin. To be effective, the capsule could contain pancreatic islet cells from animals or contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion functions.

Patients with low-insulin requirements might be able to benefit from implantation of a single capsule containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells. Patients with higher insulin requirements might require implantation of more than one capsule. The biocapsules would be able to work automatically regardless if the person is awake or not.

Another application for biocapsules on Earth would be to treat cancer especially brain cancer. A biocapsule implanted directly into a tumor bed could deliver very high doses of chemotherapy right to the area where it is needed and then side effects could possibly be reduced.

Scientists also think that biocapsules could have important applications in gene therapy. Some children are born missing a gene or are born with a defective gene. As a result, they can’t make a needed protein as in the case of hemophilia where patients are missing an important blood coagulation protein. The biocapsule could be used to implant cells that are engineered to release the missing protein and spare patients the need to receive periodic injections.

Animal trials are scheduled to begin this year and the next, and human trials using biocapsules could begin shortly after. According to Dr.Loftus, the inventor of the NASA Biocapsule and holder of the patent, biocapsules could be implanted in astronauts on the International Space Station within this decade and he thinks that we could realistically see widespread usage on Earth within 10 to 15 years.