Surgery in Space: NASA tests advanced medical technology for the Moon and beyond

The system was launched on the modified airplane which creates brief microgravity bursts to support technological testing in one of the most challenging space environments.
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Researchers load the “Lab on a Chip” with samples to perform analyses of amino acid biomarkers under zero gravity conditions on a NASA-supported flight provided by Zero Gravity Corporation.
Researchers load the “Lab on a Chip” with samples to perform analyses of amino acid biomarkers under zero gravity conditions on a NASA-supported flight provided by Zero Gravity Corporation.

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University of Louisville, Orbital Medicine, and Purdue University researchers have been developing technology that is intended to regulate and restrict bleeding and ease surgery in space.

The Flight Opportunities program at NASA is helping to advance the innovation of space-based medical advancements, according to an updated press release by the U.S. Space Agency on Tuesday. 

"Conducting surgery in space is not something we've had to contend with yet, but the further we travel from Earth, the more likely it is that we will need expanded medical capabilities," said George Pantalos, Ph.D., principal investigator for the Surgical Fluid Management System (SFMS) at the University of Louisville. 

"And because of the microgravity environment, surgery and wound care in space will be very challenging."

On November 15 and 16, experiments in microgravity tested the most recent improvements to the SFMS at the University of Louisville. 

The system was launched on the modified airplane G-FORCE ONE from Zero Gravity Corporation, which creates brief microgravity bursts to support technological testing in one of the most challenging space environments.

Surgery in Space

Surgery in Space: NASA tests advanced medical technology for the Moon and beyond
A series of space-based surgical functions have been tested in microgravity on several flights from Zero Gravity Corporation and Virgin Galactic with support from NASA.

Blood clots and other fluids from surgical sites or wounds might float into a spacecraft's cabin in the absence of gravity, polluting equipment, and perhaps introducing disease.

The SFMS has a clear dome that seals tightly to the skin of the patient and offers insertion places for surgical tools while preventing fluid leakage.

Suction, irrigation, lighting, vision, and cautery are all functions that a multi-function surgical device (MFSD) can carry out in one wand-like equipment.

"For long-duration human spaceflight missions to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations, there is a need to monitor the state of astronaut health and, when necessary, make the appropriate interventions in response to health changes or the onset of disease," said Richard Mathies, Ph.D., principal investigator for the Lab-on-a-Chip.

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Steven Collicott, Ph.D., the principal investigator at Purdue University, worked with other researchers on the recent flying tests to combine the entire system, test it, and add a fluid-air separator device.

High-definition footage of a simulated bleeding wound was recorded by researchers, and they also gathered crucial data regarding the new blood-air separation capability - information that will assist guide system updates and advancements in the future.

Compact Lab-on-a-Chip technology for health monitoring

Surgery in Space: NASA tests advanced medical technology for the Moon and beyond
Secondary containment of the surgical area is provided by a large plastic box, outfitted with openings for the surgeon’s arms. The clear surgical containment dome can be seen on the small platform inside the box.

The "Lab-on-a-Chip" technology, developed by researchers at the Universities of California, Berkeley, and Utah, is a programmable microfluidic analyzer intended to autonomously carry out clinical assays and chemical analyses for jobs like astronaut calcium loss monitoring, inflammation detection, or infectious disease detection.

Best of all, the technology comes in a little package measuring 10 cm x 15 cm x 15 cm (or roughly 4 inches x 4 inches x 6 inches). 

The surgical equipment was simulated on recent flights with other tools that might be used to keep tabs on astronaut health.

"These suborbital parabolic flights are critical to demonstrating the Lab-on-a-Chip capabilities in a challenging zero gravity environment where fluids behave very differently," said Anna Butterworth, Ph.D., at the University of California – Berkeley. 

"This is a key step to successfully developing dedicated microfluidic systems for clinical health monitoring in space," added Jungkyu Kim, Ph.D., at the University of Utah, co-investigators for the project. 

It is not feasible to undertake clinical analyses in space using the enormous laboratory and equipment needed on Earth. Instead, to track signs of deteriorating health, astronauts rely on more compact devices like WetLab-2, which is presently running on the International Space Station.

Small lab systems may be useful for even more space-based applications, such as sample analysis carried out as part of studies for signs of life on other planets and moons, as they become even more fully autonomous and downsized for NASA's future space missions.