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How NASA’s Otherworldly Discoveries Can Heal Us Here On Earth

Human cells and the cosmos have a lot in common

Though what happens in the body may not seem related to what takes place in the vast expanses of space, it turns out that human cells and the cosmos have a lot in common. “If you’re looking for bacteria or a few cancer cells that may be emitting ultraviolent light, you need the type of sensitivity that we’ve been developing,” says Shouleh Nikzad.


[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]From space science to medicine, it’s an opportunity to accelerate scientific discovery.[/quote]

A senior research scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Office of the Chief Scientist and Chief Technologist and co-lead for JPL’s medical engineering forum, Nikzad is working with a team to detect the unique light signatures of particles in space, which—just as it does with a diagnosis—often comes down to “a few photons,” she says.

Through the NASA Technology Transfer Program, NASA’s Commercial and Civil Program Office, a partnership between JPL and the National Cancer Institute, and other unique initiatives, out-of-this-world discoveries like those from Nikzad’s team are brought back down to earth, where they can be used by medical institutions and doctors.

Spacesuits That Keep Babies Warm

Embrace Innovations’ product line spun out of an MBA-student project to supply baby warmers to populations lacking access to modern medical care. Today, every item purchased from the company results in a warmer donated to an infant in need. Image via nasa.gov.

A specialized fabric developed for spacesuits to retain body heat contains “phase-change materials.” The PCM work like ice cubes in a drink—by gradually absorbing body heat and changing it from a solid form into liquid form. In this application, the fabric retains body heat, protecting against exterior cold. Though the material didn’t end up being used for space suits, it was perfect for use as cheap, portable baby incubators. The sleeping-bag-like wrap is called Embrace. What started out as an MBA project for Stanford University student Jane Chen and her classmates is now in available as a medical device. It’s “used to treat hundreds of thousands of premature and otherwise low-birth-weight infants,” according to NASA, and costs around $200 (1 percent the cost of a traditional incubator).

Dental X-rays With Cosmic Detail

The use of CMOS imagers in dental X-ray devices reduces susceptibility to electrical noise and gives dentists images they can manipulate to make more accurate diagnoses. Image via nasa.gov.

Making better pictures quickly and cheaper is a must-have for space research, leading to the development of pixel sensors that greatly improve image and clarity. This technology is now in use in dentist offices. Patients experience “lower exposure to potentially harmful X-rays,” says Stan Mandelkern, vice president of Schick, which partnered with NASA to create a new, smaller dental imaging systems. “It gives dentists images they can manipulate to make more accurate diagnoses, as well as communicate problems to the patient visually.”

Astronaut Helmets That Heal Gravity-Bound Athletes

Technology pioneered to keep astronauts and pilots cool now finds a commercial market in sports, where a liquid-cooled headliner can reduce inflammation in the event of a concussion and also improve performance by maximizing oxygen uptake, lowering heart rate, decreasing sweating, and increasing blood flow. Image via nasa.gov.

The Sideline Cooling System is made of thin panels holding liquid-filled channels at the perfect scale to cover specific muscle masses and function inside an astronaut’s helmet. The technology can now be used by football players who experience concussions, allowing them to receive immediate treatment on the sidelines. Traumatic brain injuries reduce oxygen delivered to areas of the brain, and this type of cooling can prevent damage by reducing inflammation. “It’s a very powerful, nonphysically invasive therapy,” says Bill Elkins, the original cooling system designer and founder of WElkins, LLC and creator of the Sideline Cooling System.

Servers That Can Handle Galactic Amounts of Data

A lung specimen that was analyzed using the same machine learning algorithms that were originally developed for space research. Image via nasa.gov by Catalina Sky Survey, U of Arizona, and Catalina Realtime Transient Survey, Caltech.

The massive servers used by NASA to store all of that space data are also proving to be a boon for cancer researchers and other medical experts who quickly need to access vast amounts of information quickly. Dan Crichton, head of JPL’s Center for Data Science and Technology, says public funds help them generate their information, so it legally needs to be accessible to anyone who wishes to use it. NASA’s challenge has been to organize it, which it does with a program that automatically adjusts to improve the search process by identifying patterns and trends. Crichton explains that these algorithms are especially useful in finding cancer biomarkers (anything that can be measured as having influence over or predicting a specific disease).

“Many of the techniques we have developed at NASA have now found their way from space science to medicine, biological research,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to accelerate scientific discovery.”

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