Medical Technology

Space Medicine Returns to Earth

It could have begun with Tang but in terms of advances developed for space travel having practical applications back on Earth, things have advanced.

This is an example of a new medical technology that helps astronauts be treated and protected could soon be common down there.

“All of your constraints in space can make a huge impact on innovation on Earth,” said Emmanuel Urquieta Ordonez MD, chief medical officer at NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health. “And it’s a fantastic location to test new technologies that need to work in environments with limited resources, such as remote camps that are very far away or underserved regions that don’t have access to internet.”

Urquieta was scheduled for an appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), 2022 Annual Meeting. He ran into terrestrial constraints when the COVID-19 spike caused flight cancellations- forcing him to remotely interact with other CES participants as he described the new NASA technology for remote interaction.

One invention pioneered for use in space is a tiny ultrasound probe that can be connected to the cell phone the inventor states. It’s a single probe that has the capability to capture images from different dimensions of your body. Results are processed by artificial intelligence (AI). “It’s similar to having a radiologist in your pocket,” he says.

TRISH is also researching ways to assess the health of astronauts without causing any disruption, Urquieta says. Wiring them for electrocardiography or stopping them to wear blood pressure cuffs can hinder their work. TRISH is currently investigating the capabilities of cameras and other contactless monitoring devices. “Ideally, in the morning you get up, you’re brushing your teeth and getting ready for your day, and maybe having all the sensors integrated into a system that is within your mirror or someplace similar,” says Urquieta. “You can make all the measurements without you even knowing.”

But what do you do with all that data? Former NASA scientist Maarten Sierhuis, PhD, tackled the issue by automating the function of the flight controller using software that exchanges medical data between Mission Control and the International Space Station.

“When there is a communications link available, this technology can also provide analytics and information to the biomedical engineers or the doctors or support personnel in Mission Control,” says Rachna Dhamija, PhD who was also invited to give a keynote address at CES 2020. She was part of the team that founded of Ejenta, a San Francisco startup that is commercializing some this technology.

Ejenta software is already being used by healthcare facilities to monitor vital signs and notify them when the patient is suffering from cardiovascular issues. “Other ailments include hypertension, high-risk pregnancy, diabetes, so you are able to name it. This technology is suitable for any condition that permits us to monitor a person’s health metrics and alert clinicians when someone requires assistance.

Ejenta is also developing AI programs that automatize the analysis of data for doctors as more diagnostic and monitoring devices are made available.

“But it’s particularly useful when there is that communications delay, and you require immediate support,” Dhamija says.

Ejenta’s core technology is “intelligent agent,” AI programs that use sensors to gather data from the environment and make autonomous decisions.

If you asked an intelligent agent how many steps you completed today it would then interpret your words, check your phone’s accelerometer and pedometer, calculate and provide you with the answer. If that sounds a lot like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa It’s not a coincidence. Both are intelligent agents. And Ejenta has received support from Alexa’s maker, Amazon, through an Amazon Web Services accelerator program for healthcare companies.

One of the intelligent agents Sierhuis created monitors the metabolic rate of astronauts while they are on spacewalks, and informs them when to rest or get food.

A radio signal could take up to 20 minutes to reach Mars which makes it difficult for earthbound doctors to give astronauts advice in the case of an emergency medical situation such as a heart attack or broken leg. This is why Ejenta is developing an intelligent agent that can provide useful guidance for astronauts to use in treating themselves or one other without consulting human physicians or even connecting to the internet. It will answer questions verbally and display images on a monitor.

Dhamija says there is a chance of a medical professional aboard. What happens if the injured person gets hurt and the other astronauts have to assist? They may not have the knowledge they received on Earth at the top of their list. A knowledgeable agent might be able to assist.

Dhamija is employed by Ejenta. TRISH employs Urquieta.

Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2022 Annual Meeting.

Laird Harrison writes about science and health. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and websites. He is at work on a novel that explores alternate physical realities. Harrison is a teacher at the Writers Grotto. Visit his website at lairdharrison.com or follow him on Twitter @LairdH.

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