Innovation

How Our Astronauts Make Us Healthy

A SXSW panel examines how health in space can impact health on Earth


By Christine Hall | April 03, 2018

Astronauts are among the healthiest people on Earth, but when they blast into space, medical issues often arise. Zero gravity can contribute to muscle atrophy and fluid redistribution.

With humans projected to travel into deep space for longer periods of time, NASA is hunting for solutions to a broad range of space health problems that could also help people on Earth. Not only do these solutions need to be stable and safe over the long term, they must be adaptable to remote areas with limited resources, portable, minimally invasive, accessible with low power, and easy to use by individuals with little medical training.

Space impact on Earth

At South by Southwest (SXSW), Austin’s annual film and music festival that has also become a place to debut and discuss health care innovation, experts came together in a panel titled, “How Our Astronauts Make Us Healthy,” to discuss how health in space impacts health on Earth.

“We have to design a way to keep folks healthy for two to three years with limited resources,” said Dorit Donoviel, Ph.D., director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, a NASA-funded, Baylor College of Medicine-led consortium with the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, based in the Texas Medical Center (TMC) Innovation Institute.

“If you can do that in space, away from a hospital, you can do it in the home, making health monitoring more accessible to people who have to keep healthy in other ways because they don’t have a fancy medical center nearby or access to experts,” she added.

Kidney stones, for example, are common in space. Bone loss that is known to occur in zero gravity significantly increases the amount of calcium in the urine, which can lead to the formation of kidney stones. But NASA researchers found that the stones can be broken up with ultrasound waves, allowing them to move through the kidney and out of the body.

The same treatment would be effective on Earth. Instead of going to the emergency room with kidney stone pain and being told to go home and wait for the stone to clear, an ultrasound could break up the stone, Donoviel said. In addition, a non-invasive kidney surgery created for space is now being tested on Earth, she said.

At SXSW, Donoviel moderated a panel that included William Cohn, M.D., vice president of Johnson & Johnson Medical Device Co. and director for the Johnson & Johnson Center for Device Innovation at the TMC; Esther Dyson, founder of the Way to Wellville project; Lee Shapiro, managing partner at 7wire Ventures, a health care venture fund; and Michael McConnell, M.D., clinical professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and head of cardiovascular health innovations at Verily Life Sciences.

Verily has developed a wearable system, called the Study Watch, that captures and analyzes physiological and environmental data through sensors in order to track to the transition from health to disease.

McConnell said the Study Watch could provide data that is useful to space health and could also help extend health care into remote areas and underdeveloped countries. The company aims to recruit 10,000 people to wear the device.

Healthier society

Dyson’s nonprofit, Way to Wellville, is a 10-year project to invest in health and eliminate the factors that send so many of us to hospitals, clinics and pharmacies in the first place. The end goal is to create a healthier society from the get-go that doesn’t need so much medical care. Way to Wellville hopes to improve the quality of food that people eat on Earth and, perhaps, in space.

“Astronauts can’t have fresh pasta with fresh salad and salmon, but it doesn’t have to be so processed or sugar-heavy,” Dyson said. “We could do a lot to the inflight diet that could be better.”

Meanwhile, Cohn spoke passionately about replacing technique with technology, explaining that he often “practices sick care, not health care.” While there is skill and a certain knack involved in medicine, Cohn said, he believes simple devices that leverage the most recent technology can empower everyone to treat disease.

He spoke about Butterfly Network, a company he is involved with that has transferred ultrasound technology onto a semiconductor wafer. The Butterfly iQ is a small, handheld device that plugs into an iPhone and offers users a portable medical imaging system that costs less than $2,000.

“It’s been great watching that technology unfold,” Cohn said.

A recurring theme in many of the health care panels at SXSW was the need for technology that could function like a check-engine light in a car, letting individuals know when they need to see a doctor. This sort of wearable could work for both astronauts and Earthlings.

Shapiro said people look to companies to provide technology and tech-enabled services that help them understand how a healthy body should function.

“We want to watch for and to prevent bad things from happening and be more in control of our health,” Shapiro said.

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