Dr. NASA Will See You Now

How space exploration is improving health care on earth.

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Dr. NASA Will See You Now

Some medical practices are straightforward; for a bacterial sinus infection, take antibiotics to kill the “bad” germs.

Other forms of medicine take more brainpower to understand; an organ transplant requires a blood-type match, a specific timeframe for a successful surgery, special drugs, lifestyle restrictions and more.

Then there’s the mind-boggling research involved in identifying and validating cancer biomarkers through the consolidation and analysis of petabytes of data housed in multiple locations across the country.

Fortunately, NASA is on the job!

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a mission to explore space, not develop drugs. But that endeavor is similar to the vast unknowns medicine confronts. The space agency is in the business of discovery and problem-solving. That generates new information, technology and resources that NASA regularly makes available to taxpayers. Most of this occurs through partnerships with private companies via the Technology Transfer Program.

The Fungus Among Us

Penicillin is a “wonder medicine,” according to Kasthuri “Venkat” Venkateswaran, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). A byproduct of fungus, penicillin could help astronauts living in space long-term grow fungus to create medicine, such as antibiotics, and food.

“If you have a future Mars habitation, you need a self-sustaining food. Fungus is good for making many things, including beer,” says Venkateswaran.

Efforts to grow fungus on the International Space Station (ISS) have been successful and revealed that the environment affects the growth of fungus in ways not observed on Earth. These changes are already showing promise.

“Some of the proteins that we have exposed to space have potential medical and health care applications,” says Venkateswaran. “Broadly speaking, some of these enzymes as well as the macromolecules are (potentially) helpful … for curing osteoporosis.”

Loss of bone density is typical as the body ages, so this discovery could be a bonus for Baby Boomers and beyond. But the details of this and other NASA discoveries are limited until the research is published and patents secured. That way the data are available to anyone who wants to use it. One earth-based product to come out of Venkateswaran’s work is donor tissue testing.

How Clean is Clean?

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The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft nears the International Space Station during the CRS-8 mission to deliver experiments including two microbial investigations. Photo courtesy of NASA

Anything going into space needs to be extra clean. To prevent bacterial and other organic stowaways, which can be dangerous to astronauts in space due to suppressed immune response, NASA uses clean rooms to build and prepare anything in a rocket (that’s why they wear those shoe-booties, coveralls and funny hats). Verifying the cleanliness of a spacecraft used to take three days. Venkateswaran’s team worked on methods to speed up the process; now it takes 30 minutes to determine how many microbes are present.

A private company with an equally challenging problem with equally high stakes is AlloSource, one of the largest providers of skin, bone and organ tissue for transplant. Understandably, the FDA requires the company to test for the presence of specific microbes.

“This tissue has a shelf-life of 24-25 days from the time they process before they transplant,” Venkateswaran says. “[The] test for the presence of these microbes … takes 14 days. But we cut that 14 days to three. You are gaining 11 more days. That is a huge benefit.”

This means less bone and tissue will be lost, and more people will be able to get the transplants they need.

While funding for fungus research now focuses on what Venkateswaran calls “friendly fungus,” he’s working to secure funding for the “foe fungus” projects. He believes experiments to learn how to clean unwanted microbes on the space station and protocols to properly maintaining equipment to keep the hermetically sealed structure safe for humans will translate into cleaner, safer medical facilities.

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NGC 3718, NGC 3729 and other galaxies have been analyzed using machine learning algorithms that can be “taught” to recognize astrophysical similarities. The same technology is now being applied to cancer images, as well. Photo courtesy of Catalina Sky Survey, U of Arizona, and Catalina Realtime Transient Survey, Caltech

Data In, Data Out

Meanwhile on Earth, data collected in the ISS – including some related to research projects – flows back to NASA servers daily. Data from satellites, Mars probes and many other sources, on top of years of historical data, leave Dan Crichton with a big task—making that all of it accessible and searchable. As head of JPL’s Center for Data Science and Technology, it’s Crichton’s job to manage what he calls NASA’s “crown jewels.”

“Observational data, as we call it, provides measurements from instruments that are captured as part of NASA’s planetary, astrophysics and Earth science missions,” he says. “These measurements are critical to scientific discovery and validation of existing scientific theories.

“This information is used by scientists worldwide to support their research. More data can improve the reliability of our scientific understanding.”

NASA is training computer programs to search vast amounts of data and look for things such as patterns or trends in search results. Then the programs automatically adjust the parameters used to accommodate what was “learned.” This requires cutting-edge hardware and software, which, as it turns out, is helpful for cancer research.

“Cancer research shares many similarities in how the science is collected and analyzed with what we do in space research,” says Crichton. “JPL and the National Cancer Institute have partnered to take advantage of such capabilities to support cancer biomarker research … to establish a knowledge system reusing [NASA’s] big data software and methodologies.

“The knowledge system provides an informatics platform to support and bring together the capture, management and analysis of biomarker data from major research institutions across the United States.”

NASA is leveraging what it knows to help NCI and its partners collect, classify, store, retrieve and disseminate a wealth of information about cancer. New opportunities in this area include machine analysis of imaging (e.g., MRI images) and other data. This automation has the potential to dramatically increase the information currently available.

Nanotech and You

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A lung specimen that was analyzed using the same machine learning algorithms that were originally developed for space research.
Photo courtesy of Early Research Detection Network/University of Colorado

Cancer cells in a human body emit a small amount of ultraviolet light, according to Shouleh Nikzad, senior research scientist with JPL’s Office of the Chief Scientist and Chief Technologist. As an astrophysicist, she’s in the business of finding ultraviolet light in space.

“Most people are familiar with infrared part of the [light] spectrum because of night vision they have seen in movies or news,” says Nikzad. “Infrared and ultraviolet light is all around us, we just don’t see it. Our eyes aren’t sensitive to it. So we make devices that can pick up that information that’s all around us.

“If you’re looking in astrophysics, the younger, hotter stars of a certain size emit ultraviolet [light]. There is a signature when a massive star dies, an ultraviolet signature.”

Nikzad and her team use nanotechnology to develop sensors to see through the clutter in space to find whatever the astrophysicists want to measure.

“There are different kinds of semiconductors that you could make into ultraviolet detectors,” she says. “We actually use very big machines to manipulate them at the nanoscale.”

This development is applicable in medicine because doctors must also sort through the visual noise in the human body. Identifying a cancer cell’s unique ultraviolet signature will eliminate oxygen, nitrogen and other particles from consideration when using the right diagnostic tools. Nikzad and her teams are working to improve the sensitivity of those existing diagnostic tools to leverage their ultraviolet technology and discoveries.

An advocate for exploring the synergy between space applications and medicine, Nikzad helps organize presentations and other efforts in support of the group’s mission to “harness the unique technology being developed at JPL for the exploration of space and to apply those technologies to solving challenging problems in health care and medicine.”

Watch for more space tech coming to a doctor’s office near you.

Lead photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Margo is a science writer poking her nose into everything that piques her curiosity, from NASA and sea turtles to climate change and green tech.