'Space Medicine' Returns to Earth

Laird Harrison

January 14, 2022

It may have started with Tang, but when it comes to advances developed for space travel having useful applications back on Earth, things have improved.

Case in point: New medical technology designed to help protect and treat astronauts may soon be ubiquitous down here.

"All of the constraints that you have in space really drive a lot of the innovation on Earth," said Emmanuel Urquieta Ordonez, MD, chief medical officer of NASA's Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH). "And it is a great place to test technologies that need to work in a resource-limited environment, like remote camps that are very far away or underserved regions that don't have access to internet."

Urquieta was scheduled to speak at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2022 Annual Meeting. He ran into terrestrial constraints when the COVID-19 surge resulted in flight cancellations — forcing him to remotely interact with other CES participants as he described the new NASA technology for remote interactions.

One invention pioneered for use in space is a miniaturized ultrasound probe that connects to a cell phone, he says. "It's a single probe that has the capability to obtain images from different depths of your body." Results are interpreted by artificial intelligence (AI). "It's almost like having a radiologist in your pocket," he says.

TRISH is also researching how to monitor the health of astronauts unobtrusively, Urquieta says. Wiring them for electrocardiography or stopping them to put on blood pressure cuffs can interfere with their work. So TRISH is investigating the abilities of cameras and other contactless monitors. "Ideally, in the morning you wake up, you are brushing your teeth, getting ready for your day, and maybe having all the sensors embedded into a system that is in your mirror or somewhere like that," says Urquieta. "You can take all of the measurements without you even knowing."

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

"When there is a communication link available, this technology can also provide analytics and information to the biomedical engineers or the doctors or the support people in Mission Control," says Rachna Dhamija, PhD, who was also invited to speak at CES 2020. She joined Sierhuis in founding Ejenta, a San Francisco start-up that is commercializing some of this technology.

Healthcare centers are already using Ejenta software to monitor vital signs and give an early warning if a patient is in cardiovascular trouble, she says. "Other conditions include hypertension, high-risk pregnancy, diabetes, so you name it. Any condition where we can monitor somebody's metrics and provide clinicians with the early signs that somebody needs help is suitable for this technology."

Ejenta is also working on AI programs to automate the data analysis that physicians face as more and more diagnostic and monitoring devices come into play.

"But it's especially useful when there is that communications delay, and you want real-time support," Dhamija says.

The core technology developed by Ejenta is "intelligent agents," AI programs with sensors that take in data from their environment and make autonomous decisions based on this data.

For example, if you ask an intelligent agent how many steps you have taken today, it would understand your speech and consult the accelerometer or pedometer in your phone, make a calculation, and give you an answer. If that sounds a lot like Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa, that's no coincidence. Both are examples of 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 developed monitors an astronauts' metabolic rates while they are on space walks, advising them about when to rest or get something to eat.

A radio signal can take as long as 20 minutes to get to Mars, making it difficult for earthbound doctors to advise astronauts in the event of a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or broken leg. So Ejenta is designing an intelligent agent that can provide useful guidance for astronauts to use in treating themselves or each other without consulting human physicians or even connecting to the internet. It can answer verbal questions and display images on a screen.

"There is anticipated to be somebody with medical training on board," Dhamija says. "But what happens if that person is injured and the other astronauts have to assist? They may not have the training that they received on Earth top of mind. So an intelligent agent can potentially help."

Dhamija is an employee of Ejenta. Urquieta is an employee of TRISH.

Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2022 Annual Meeting.

Laird Harrison writes about science, health, and culture. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, on public radio, and on websites. He is at work on a novel about alternate realities in physics. Harrison teaches writing at the Writers Grotto. Visit him at lairdharrison.com or follow him on Twitter: @LairdH.

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