Space exploration falls under the category of “pure science,” meaning the goal is just to gather knowledge. Nothing practical has to come of it.
But in point of fact, many practical things have resulted from NASA’s space program, as specialty items had to be invented to enable the journeys into space. Many of them have then been adapted into everyday use, as we’ve already seen here. Here we’ll focus only on the tech for the heart.
Software from space to ward off heart attacks: the story of ArterioVision
Space discoveries generally begin with pictures, so image processing plays a very big part in NASA’s work. As some of the before and after pictures in 10 Breathtaking Photos Taken from Space indicated, getting a clear picture of the cosmos involves advanced technology.
As described in the video above, NASA developed software to apply image manipulation and enhancement to compensate for losses of image quality in the transmission from spacecrafts launched by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). To address the problem, in 1966 NASA developed VICAR -- pronounced with a long i (not the short i as in the word form that is not an acronym that refers to a position in the church.)
VICAR stands for Video Image Communication And Retrieval. NASA used it to digitally process multi-dimensional imaging data. But JPL shared the technology with other scientific researchers in the United States and Europe.
As a result, it has been applied to various other uses over the decades, ranging from cartography to biomedical image processing.The California Institute of Technology licensed the technology to Medical Technologies International Inc. (MTI), a company founded in 1999. It produced ArterioVision software.
As explained under “Science and Technology” on the JPL section of the NASA site, MTI’s chief engineer, Robert Selzer, worked in JPL's Image Processing Laboratory for 15 years, and so participated in the development of the technology used in the software that forms the basis of ArterioVision.
Selzer described its incredibly advanced precision: “It can distinguish between 256 shades of gray at a subpixel level," Selzer said. That’s what is needed to detect “heart disease as early as you can, often before there are any outward symptoms."
The company’s chairman and chief executive officer, Gary F. Thompson, was inspired to develop a way to make people aware that they are at risk from a heart attack after he suffered from one midway through the Los Angeles marathon.
Thompson, who had just turned 50 at the time noted, "None of the non-invasive tests that I had prior to the marathon detected my silent heart disease, and I knew there had to be something better out there."
Thanks to the technology, it’s now possible for individuals whose imaging shows them to be at risk for heart disease to be proactive about adopting a healthier diet and committing to exercise. For many that means not having to become dependent on medications or having to resort to surgery.
Other inventions that are making a real difference in people’s lives are featured in NASA’s list of health and medical spinoffs. It includes the following:
Keeps pumping before a heart transplant
Patients in need of a heart transplant have to have a way to keep their blood pumping until they can have the surgery. The MicroMed DeBakey VAD, which has been implanted in hundreds of patients, achieves that. “Supercomputer simulation of fluid flow through rocket engines” was the inspiration for this life-saving technology.
See it explained in this video:
Keeps blood circulating during CPR
A device called the ResQPOD Circulatory Enhancer, promotes blood flow to the brain, which can make the difference between life and death for cardiac arrests patients en route to the hospital. This is a spinoff of NASA’s research into adjusting blood pressure for astronauts shifting from zero to no gravity back to Earth’s gravity.
How it works is detailed in Circulation-Enhancing Device Improves CPR. “The device is about the size of a fist and can be affixed to either a facemask or an endotracheal breathing tube during CPR. It enhances the intrathoracic vacuum that forms in the chest during the chest recoil phase of CPR by temporarily sealing off the airway between breaths and preventing unnecessary air from entering the chest.”
“The vacuum that is created pulls blood back to the heart, doubling the amount of blood that is pulled back by conventional mouth-to-mouth/chest compression CPR, according to clinical studies, which also show that blood flow to the brain is increased by 50 percent.”
Given the American Heart Association’s estimates of 95 percent of American cardiac arrest victims dying before they reach the hospital, anything that helps keep them alive for that trip can literally “can mean the difference between life and death” and also prove “critical to improving survival rates with normal neurological functioning”
Here's a video about its use:
High tech aerospace plastic for heart failure treatment
NASA scientists who were working on developing materials for high-speed aircrafts developed “an advanced aerospace resin, Langley Research Center's Soluble Imide, or LaRC-SI.”
The material has outstanding flexibility and resilience. It is not damaged by extreme temperatures and is resistant to chemicals. It also proved to be biologically inert, which makes it ideal for use within a body.
It’s used to insulate leads used in cardiac resynchronization therapy or CR. It’s necessary to have these leads to carry electric impulses from the CRT implanted in the chest to the heart to get the heart beating in the sight rhythm.
As detailed in With Every Beat, NASA Involved in How the Heart Behaves, “NASA licensed the patented LaRC-SI insulation technology in July 2004 to Medtronic Inc. -- a Minneapolis-based medical technology company -- who recognized the potential of the highly flexible resin for its Attain Ability left-heart lead cardiac CRT device.”
' "The life I save might be my own, " noted Dr. Rob Bryant who invented it.
He added this important observation of life-saving spinoff technologies: "Langley Research Center's Soluble Imide is an excellent example of how taxpayer investment in NASA materials research has resulted in a direct benefit beyond the aerospace sector by extending the quality of life through medical technology."