Houston researchers' medical device, ready for space station test, could help astronauts reach Mars

Houston researchers’ medical device, ready for space station test, could help astronauts reach Mars

Houston researchers are using microgravity to test a medical device that could help astronauts avoid radiation poisoning or bone loss during years-long missions to Mars.

And if they can remotely control this device on the International Space Station, sending signals that would personalize when a drug is released over time, then doctors could use it to help patients in places far from Earth.

“That’s pretty representative of an extreme telemedicine scenario,” said Alessandro Grattoni, chair and professor of the Department of Nanomedicine at the Houston Methodist Research Institute. “So if we can communicate with the International Space Station, we will certainly be able to communicate with a very large part of the world where this type of technology may be needed.”

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Grattoni and his teammates sent 10 remote-controlled drug delivery implants to the International Space Station. They launched on Saturday in a SpaceX capsule carrying more than 7,500 pounds of cargo, including food, research and solar panels that will provide additional power to the space station. The capsule reached the space station on Sunday.

Grattoni’s experiment tests the ability to communicate with the medical implants, which are about the size of a quarter and will be immersed in a saline solution representative of the fluids inside the body. Bluetooth and a Raspberry Pi computer on Earth will be used to ping devices at least once every 10 minutes, possibly several times per minute.

The devices will not emit drugs during this test. But Grattoni expects his next experiment to implant devices inside mice, then send those mice to the space station.

“There is a step-by-step approach,” Grattoni said. “We cannot send mice implanted with this device without knowing that we are able to control these implants from here to the International Space Station.”

Ultimately, the device could be inserted under a person’s skin on the inside of their arm or lower abdomen. There would be medicine charged inside (more medicine could be added later with a needle), and something wearable like a bracelet or belt would be used to charge the batteries every few months .

The device is designed to continuously release medication, although it can be programmed to release more medication at certain times and less at other times. He could also administer doses when they are most effective. Medications to treat high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis, for example, are most effective when taken at specific times of the day or night.

Grattoni envisions the medical implant to help people who live in remote areas where it is difficult to travel to a clinic. Or maybe it could help someone who is recovering from surgery and can’t easily get to the doctor.

It can also be used in developing countries, war zones or areas of geopolitical unrest. A patient can call or video chat with their doctor, and the doctor can then remotely adjust the amount of medication released by the device.

“We are primarily focused on application here on Earth,” Grattoni said.

But there could be uses in space as astronauts travel farther from home.

On the space station, the Earth’s magnetic field helps shield astronauts from radiation. Daily exercise helps reduce bone loss caused by weightlessness.

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But trips to Mars will expose astronauts to more radiation as they leave Earth’s magnetic field. Smaller capsules will also not have as much space for exercise equipment.

NASA is working to solve both deep space exploration problems, but Grattoni thinks pharmaceuticals could help. And the ability to administer these drugs remotely is essential.

There may not be a doctor on board, but the implanted device could help keep astronauts healthy.

“When you’re an astronaut – and you’re on this space station or other space platforms – you have to be all your own: your own engineer, your own plumber, your own hairdresser, and maybe even your own doctor,” said Patrick O’Neill, head of public affairs and outreach for the International Space Station National Laboratory.

The ISS National Laboratory enables research and technology development that would benefit life on Earth and in space, where a commercial sector is thriving. O’Neill said the medical device ticks both boxes.

“That’s why it’s up there,” he said of the space station, “to be able to help validate these unique opportunities. And we are delighted to work alongside Dr. Grattoni and his team to support this investigation.


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