Space medicine returns to Earth

It may have started with Tang, but when it comes to advancements being developed for space travel with useful applications on Earth, things have gotten better.

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

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

Urquieta was scheduled to speak at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) annual meeting. He ran into ground constraints when the COVID-19 surge led to flight cancellations – forcing him to interact remotely with other CES attendees as he described NASA’s new technology for remote interactions.

One invention being pitched for use in space is a miniaturized ultrasound probe that connects to a cellphone, he says. “It’s a unique probe that has the ability to image different depths of your body.” The results are interpreted by artificial intelligence (AI). “It’s almost like having a radiologist in your pocket,” he says.

TRISH is also investigating how to discreetly monitor the health of astronauts, Urquieta says. Hardwiring them for electrocardiography or preventing them from putting on blood pressure cuffs can interfere with their work. TRISH is therefore studying the capabilities of cameras and other contactless monitors. “Ideally in the morning you wake up, brush your teeth, get ready for your day, and maybe you have all the sensors built into a system that’s in your mirror or somewhere like that,” says Urquieta. . “You can take all the action without even knowing it.”

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

“When a communication link is available, this technology can also provide analysis and information to biomedical engineers or doctors or Mission Control support people,” says Rachna Dhamija, PhD, who was also asked to take the speaking at CES 2020. She joined Sierhuis to found Ejenta, a San Francisco startup that commercializes some of this technology.

Health centers already use Ejenta software to monitor vital signs and give early warning if a patient has cardiovascular problems, she says. “Other conditions include hypertension, high risk pregnancies, diabetes, etc. Any condition where we can monitor someone’s metrics and provide clinicians with early signs that someone needs help suitable for this technology.

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

“But it’s especially useful when there’s a lag in communication and you want real-time assistance,” says Dhamija.

The core technology developed by Ejenta is that of “intelligent agents”, AI programs with sensors that collect 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 will understand your speech and read your phone’s accelerometer or pedometer, do a calculation and give you an answer. If it sounds a lot like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, it’s no coincidence. Both are examples of intelligent agents. And Ejenta has received support from Alexa maker Amazon through an Amazon Web Services accelerator program for healthcare businesses.

One of the intelligent agents developed by Sierhuis monitors the metabolic rates of astronauts while they’re on space walks, telling them when to rest or eat something.

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

“It is expected that there will be someone with a medical background on board,” Dhamija says. “But what if that person is injured and the other astronauts have to help them? They may not have in mind the training they received on Earth. An intelligent agent can therefore potentially help.”

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

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 working on a novel about alternate realities in physics. Harrison teaches writing at Writers Grotto. Visit him at or follow him on Twitter: @LairdH.

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.


Leave a Comment