4 NASA technologies that have revolutionised healthcare


Healthcare, NHS, NASA

NASA has been responsible for savings thousands of lives around the world.

When Congress established NASA in 1958, it required the space agency to share information about its discoveries. NASA was also given the go-ahead to licence inventions and help businesses develop commercial uses for them.

Today NASA is working on a mission to safety land a crewed ship on the surface of Mars. But to do this, the space agency needs to invent technologies that don’t yet exist. And we’re not talking about just one or two new gadgets. NASA is currently working on a staggering 40 new technologies in order to meet a 2033 deadline for launching a crew to Mars that can live on the planet for at least a few months.

The engineering feats required are immense - but not unusual for NASA. But if you’re thinking, technologies designed for space travel won’t impact your life, you couldn’t be more wrong. NASA’s missions have produced thousands of commercial products in the past 60 years - innovations that have been used by almost every person on this planet and saved countless lives. Let’s take a look a just a few of them.

The ventricular assist device – keeping patients alive while they wait for a heart transplant

The MicroMed-DeBakery Ventricular Asset device was first conceived in the 1980s as a result of a collaborative research effort between NASA scientists and Dr. Michael DeBakery. Prior to this development, traditional techniques had generated friction that damaged blood cells and raised the risk of blood clotting.

DeBakery collaborated with NASA engineers to overcome this biologic obstacle by taking inspiration from space shuttle fuel pump technology. NASA scientists experimented with simulating fluid flow through rocket engines enabled DeBakery to build a device that keeps patients alive while they await heart transplants by pumping blood throughout the body, lessening stress on the heart.

In 1998, the device was used for the first time and has since been implanted in thousands of people and is now regarded as a critically important tool in the fight to save terminally ill cardiovascular patients.

The technology underpinning CAT Scans and MRI machinery

CAT Scans and MRI machines allow physicians and medical researchers to see the inner workings of a person’s anatomy and physiology. These kinds of technologies help clinicians diagnose and treat illnesses, further their understanding of biology, and prevent innumerable premature deaths every year.

Yet they weren’t invented in a laboratory or hospital, but rather thanks to research, done by the U.S. space program. It was NASA scientists that originally utilised digital signal processing to produce computer-improved images of the moon during the various Apollo missions, according to the space organisation. That breakthrough would eventually have countless other applications, including as the basis for the CAT Scans and MRI machinery so common today.

Critical insights into bone health that led to improved osteoporosis drugs

Space travel has facilitated breakthroughs in osteoporosis research.

Pharmaceutical giant, Amgen, partnered with NASA to study bone density decline. To gain insight into the condition, Amgen flew mice to and from the International Space Station on three different assembly missions. It was through these experiments, according to NASA scientists, that researchers observed that mice treated with osteoprotegerin decreased bone resorption compared to untreated mice.

Coupled with ongoing clinical trials Amgen was running back on Earth, space travel was key in the development of Prolia. The F.D.A. approved drug treats osteoporosis, improves bone density, and is even effective in combating certain kinds of giant cell bone tumours, according to the National Institute of Health.

Artificial limbs

NASA’s innovations in robotics and shock-absorption/comfort materials has inspired and enabled healthcare providers to create new and better solutions for animal and human prostheses. Advancements in the development of artificial muscle systems with robotic sensing and actuation capabilities for use in NASA space robotic and extravehicular activities are being adapted to create more functionally dynamic artificial limbs.

When combined with NASA’s temper foam technology, artificial limbs can now be created in malleable materials offering the natural look and feel of flesh, as well as preventing friction between the skin and the prosthesis, as well as reducing and heat and moisture build-up.

As NASA prepares for its mission to Mars, they continue to push technological and engineering boundaries. Their research into human health, wellbeing, safety and survival on Mars is sure to unlock key technologies we can use on earth, not just in healthcare, but across every industry and we can’t wait to see what emerges next as a result of NASA’s truly awe-inspiring technological feats. 

Posted by Helen Thomas