Why have two teams of scientists both been inventing the same technology from scratch, ponders space expert Colin Stuart. Could this waste of valuable resources be curtailed and why does it even matter?
In November 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission made history. The world eagerly watched on as Rosetta despatched a lander called Philae to touchdown on the surface of a comet – a space first. This daring mission had been more than two decades in the planning and execution. Launched in 2004, it took ten years to complete the half-a-billion kilometre trek to the comet. Researchers behind the mission were searching out answers to questions about how our solar system formed and the role comets may have played in making Earth a living planet.
Such missions may seem quite literally worlds away from the business of surgeons, scalpels and stethoscopes, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a growing and flourishing collaboration between those who study stars and those diagnosing disease. That’s because the out-of-this-world solutions conjured up by space scientists are quite unique.
When it comes to space, miniaturisation is absolutely vital. It costs upwards of $10,000 to launch a kilogram’s worth of payload into orbit. In order to send scientific instruments halfway across the solar system, researchers often have to squeeze an entire laboratory’s worth of equipment into a space no bigger than a shoebox. What’s more, that technology has to be versatile and durable enough to withstand the harsh environment of outer space for years if not decades. There are no do-overs. And that’s something that other sectors find attractive. So in recent years there’s been an explosion in the number of business incubation centres popping up across Europe and the world, turning space engineers into fledgling entrepreneurs, working with professionals from other fields to share this bespoke technology.
And one of the most successful collaborations has been with the healthcare sector. Take Rosetta. One of its key tasks was to characterise the organic compounds present on the comet and compare them to those found on Earth. This was largely done using a mass spectrometer called Ptolemy. Ordinarily such devices are the size of a fridge. The same technology on Rosetta could fit inside that proverbial shoebox. Back here on Earth, scientists are busy adapting this space technology into a device capable of detecting Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium associated with stomach afflictions including ulcers and cancer. The bacteria are more prevalent in developing countries – places where access to laboratory grade tests are scarce. The UK company Oxford Micro Medical are using technology based on Ptolemy to design a smartphone-sized device capable of sniffing out H pylori.
Another instrument on board Rosetta was MIDAS, designed to study the dust grains escaping from the comet as it was warmed by the Sun. It used a finely controlled needle to run over the dust grain and map out its shape. Now the French company who designed the instrument – Cedrat Technologies – are adapting the engineering for use in cardiac surgery. A small lever, attached to the actuator technology used in the Rosetta mission, comes into contact with the heart and restricts its local movement. This should allow surgeons to work on that area of the heart without the need to stop the entire organ beating. Initial tests on pigs have shown some success.
It wouldn’t be the first time the world of cardiac medicine has been improved by the addition of space technology. Back in 1983, NASA engineer David Saucier was struggling after a heart attack. For a gruelling year he sat on the transplant list waiting for a replacement. Finally, the call came and he checked into the Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas to receive his new heart. Little did he know that he was about to save the lives of many others, too. His life-saving surgery was performed by cardiac specialist Michael DeBakey, and after a successful procedure the two men began talking. During their long discussions they could see how their two fields overlapped, how they could pool their expertise to ease the suffering of patients like Saucier.
Saucier was an expert on the fuel pump system of NASA’s iconic space shuttle, and to him the heart was just another pump. Together Saucier and DeBakey spent years miniaturising the shuttle technology to fashion a device capable of transporting blood around the body. By taking some of the workload away from the heart, a patient with a faulty organ could survive longer and be healthier whilst waiting for a transplant. Saucier and DeBakey invented a ventricular-assist pump just five centimetres long, two and a half centimetres wide and weighing less than 100 grams – so small it can even be implanted in children. Saucier died in 1996, his life extended by 13 years. That same year the rights to his technology were granted to a spin out company.
The shuttle Saucier worked on was once NASA’s workhorse, ferrying astronauts back and forth to space. Today spacemen and women may reach orbit via different means, but their presence in space is leading to yet more collaboration between space scientists and the medical profession. One particularly fruitful area is in vitro diagnostics (IVDs) of blood, urine and tissue, used in many fields from cardiology and cancer to diabetes and drug testing. In many cases, these diagnostics tests are still performed manually. In the past year, biotech company Fujirebio Europe have adapted technology from the International Space Station to create a low maintenance, long lasting and automatic IVD unit.
These are just handful of examples, illustrating what can be achieved when the space and healthcare sectors join hands and share their knowledge and resources. Of course it isn’t just one way. There are many examples of astronomers utilising imaging techniques developed by doctors in order to better understand the universe. By continuing to talk to each other, and building key relationships across the sectors, much time and effort can be saved. It will see more new devices invented that will ultimately see technology designed to study the stars save lives down here on the ground.
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