NASA -National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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At the Hospital With NASA


"Cool" Laser Heart Surgery

Photograph of doctors inside a hospital room preparing for surgery
Nobody thinks it's "cool" to have a heart operation, but thanks to NASA technology a "cool" laser is providing thousands of patients with an alternative to heart bypass surgery.

Image to right: Doctors can now use the "cool" laser instead of performing regular bypass surgery. Credit: NASA

It is estimated that some five million Americans suffer from "hardening of the arteries" (atherosclerosis), the single biggest cause of heart disease and related ailments. Until recently, heart bypass surgery, which replaces clogged blood vessels, was the main treatment for serious cases.

A non-surgical alternative to some patients is balloon angioplasty. Through this procedure, a flexible catheter with a tiny balloon at its tip is threaded into the blocked artery and inflated to widen the path for blood flow.

Photograph of doctors performing heart surgery
In January, 1992, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new surgery method derived from laser technology pioneered by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for remote sensing of earth's ozone layer. This laser surgery can help a broader range of patients than balloon angioplasty.

Image to left: Doctors use the "cool" laser to vaporize blockage inside arteries. Credit: NASA

The procedure involves threading a small catheter through coronary arteries. The laser light is carried through fiber optic bundles within the catheter. Another group of fibers shines a light at the tip to provide video pictures of the inside of the artery. Watching the video pictures, the doctor can spot areas of blockage and fire short bursts of laser beams to vaporize them. While other types of lasers are too hot for delicate heart surgery, the excimer laser operates at a "cool" 65° C, a temperature that human tissue can tolerate.

Space Telescope Looks for Cancer

Photograph of a doctor using a charged coupled device
Breast examinations (mammographies) help in the detection of breast cancer. Until recently, if a doctor saw a trouble spot on the x-ray he or she would order a biopsy procedure. A biopsy required surgery to cut into the breast and obtain a tissue sample. Now, however, with the help of Hubble Space Telescope technology, biopsies can be performed with a needle instead of a scalpel.

Image to right: Charged coupled devices have made biopsies easier on the patients. Credit: NASA

Charged coupled devices (CCDs) are high technology silicon chips that convert light directly into electronic or digital images. Goddard Space Flight Center headed the development of an advanced, supersensitive CCD to be installed in the Hubble Space Telescope in 1997. The LORAD Corporation of Danbury, Connecticut, adopted the new CCD for their breast biopsy system.

The patient lies face down with one breast protruding through an opening. The device images breast tissue more clearly than conventional x-rays. This allows the system to pinpoint the area in question. The doctor can then use the specially designed needle to extract a tiny sample. The patient can then walk out of the office and resume normal activities.

The procedure costs about $850 compared to about $3500 for traditional biopsy surgery. The new procedure also saves the patient time and pain, and leaves only a small needle mark rather than a large scar.

Body Imaging

Digital image of organs in the human body
In the mid-1960s, as NASA prepared for its Apollo moon landing program, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed the technology known as digital image processing to allow computer enhancement of Moon pictures. This technology later became the basis for the NASA Landsat satellites.

Image to left: Doctors use digital image processing to check for problems patients might have with their internal organs. Credit: NASA

Digital image processing is now being used by doctors and hospitals to record images of organs in the human body. Two of the most widely used body imaging techniques are computer-aided tomography (CATScan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

CATScan image data is collected by aiming a fan-shaped x-ray beam from a number of different directions around the body. A tomographic (slice-like) image is reconstructed from these multiple views by a computer. MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create images, rather then x-rays.

In most cases, CATScan is used for bone, while MRI is used for soft tissue (such as the liver shown above). Both methods are often used to obtain a complete diagnosis for a patient. Doctors and engineers are working to combine the best features of MRI and CATScan. One of their research tools is a computer program originally developed by NASA to distinguish among Earth surface features in Landsat image processing.

New Arms and Legs

Photograph of a woman cooking with a prosthetic arm
The making of artificial limbs is known in the medical world as prosthetics. This field also includes orthopedic aids such as knee and neck braces. The Harshberger Prosthetic and Orthotic Center, Inc., Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in making these devices.

Image to right: NASA technology has made prosthetics more durable and more cost effective. Credit: NASA

Harshberger wanted to improve the way it makes artificial limbs. There was a need to replace the plaster and corn starch materials used to make molds for new arms and legs and similar devices. The plaster molds were heavy, easy to break (and unfixable when they broke), and were hard to ship and store. Harshberger asked NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, if they could help.

MSFC and the Lockheed-Martin Company are responsible for building the space shuttle external tank. The ET is covered with a foam insulation. It protects the ET from heat, and keeps the liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen inside the tank at proper cold temperatures. The ET insulation is lighter, stronger and can be worked more easily with a machine than plaster. Also important, the foam material is less expensive to use.

Harshberger tried the ET foam to make molds for the fitting of artificial limbs. It worked! The company was able to reduce the costs of making an artificial limb, which lowered the cost for patients. They were also able to mass-produce foam "blanks" for making molds, and began to ship them to artificial limb makers all over America.

Infrared Thermometer

Photograph of a nurse using an infrared thermometer
Believe it or not, in the U.S. alone, someone takes someone else's temperature about two billion times a year. And that's just in hospitals and the doctor's office! The two billion figure doesn't include all those anxious moms and dads checking on junior's fever.

Image to left: Thanks to NASA's infrared technology you can take your temperature in just 2 seconds. Credit: NASA

If you think that's amazing, think about this: the latest in thermometer technology was made possible by NASA's ability to measure the temperatures of stars and planets -- without ever leaving the ground!

Taking the temperature of distant bodies is made possible through sensing of infrared radiation given off by the star or planet.

Diatek Corporation of San Diego, California, asked NASA to help them develop the sensor technology for a hand-held thermometer that takes a person's temperature in less than two seconds. The thermometer has a probe that is inserted a little way into the ear. (The patient doesn't even have to be awake.) The probe is thrown away after use and replaced by a new one, as a guard against cross-infection.

To take someone's temperature in two seconds saves nurses a lot of time!

Light at the end of the Tunnel for Cancer

Light emitting diodes (LED), used for plant experiments on the Space Shuttle, are being used to perform surgery on patients with brain cancer. Photodynamic Therapy, a MSFC Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Quantum Devices collaboration, uses LEDs to activate photosensitizers (light-sensitive, tumor-treating drugs) that have been injected intravenously. Light activation allows the drugs to destroy cancerous cells, leaving surrounding tissue virtually untouched.

Photograph of a light emitting diode
Image to right: LEDs have improved cancer technology so the cancer can be treated without destroying the healthy cells surrounding it. Credit: NASA

As a result of over five years of research and experimentation, the LED probe has gained FDA approval. Cancer treatment trials using the LEDs have thus far included skin cancer and brain tumor patients, with promising results.

A second chapter in the partnership focuses on LED's wound healing powers. Subject improvements in wound healing will have multiple applications, including long-term space flight, military solutions and civilian medical care. LED usage for wound healing has been approved by the Naval Special Warfare Command.

The transfer of LED technology from experiments for the Space Shuttle to the medical community is but one example of how NASA's commercial space research leads to improving the quality of life on Earth.

"Smart" Composite Forceps

Photograph of the new obstetrical forceps
NASA X-33 composite material was used to create a new improved obstetrical forceps. These "smart" forceps, with embedded fiber optics, will allow doctors to measure the amount of pressure being applied to an infant's head during delivery.

Image to left: The NASA X-33 composite material has helped make delivering babies safer. Credit: NASA

The elasticity of the composite material and the ability to tailor its thickness along the length of the forceps will prevent the physician from exerting too great a force.

Most doctors get their first experience of using forceps in an actual infant delivery. These composite forceps will be used to train medical students before they step foot into the delivery room.

Pill-Sized Transmitter Monitors Fetus from Inside the Womb

Photograph of a pill-sized transmitter
Medical personnel can monitor fetal activity from inside the womb using a small pill-shaped transmitter developed at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Pill transmitters are used to measure blood pressure and temperature in astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but they are being studied for a number of applications on Earth.

Image to right: Pill-sized transmitters can be used to monitor things like the health of a baby or problems with your intestines. Credit: NASA

The transmitters can be implanted in the intrauterine to monitor fetal activity; swallowed to monitor intestinal activity; and are being developed for use in monitoring athletes and high-stress professionals such as firefighters and soldiers.

Early Disease Prediction Through Chromosome Analysis

Photograph of a chromosome tech working in a lab
Technology used to study space probe photographs sent back to Earth is now being used to analyze human chromosomes and could lead to disease prediction in infants. The process, developed jointly by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., and NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, allows researchers to quickly and automatically arrange and analyze human chromosomes and detect genetic abnormalities.

Image to left: NASA technology is being used to predict diseases by analyzing human chromosomes. Credit: NASA

The NASA technology allows researchers to complete a job that once took hours in less than 10 minutes.

Digital Mammography Provides Clearer Images, Less Radiation

Photograph of two ladies talking in an office environment
Technology developed for monitoring changes in the Earth's atmosphere is now being used for the early detection of breast cancer. The digital image detectors, similar to those found in video cameras, were developed at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Image to right: NASA technology is being used to produce breast images while using less radiation. Credit: NASA

The system captures sharper digital images, while exposing the breast to lower doses of radiation, than with conventional mammography. The images can then be digitally stored or sent via computer.

Camera on a Chip Used to Diagnose Osteoporosis

Photograph of a camera-on-a-chip being compared to a ruler
Physicians soon may be tracking the onset of osteoporosis using "camera-on-a-chip" technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The small, lightweight camera chip, initially developed for recording images in space, incorporates onto one chip all of the electronic controls normally requiring multiple chips.

Image to left: NASA's camera-on-a-chip hopes to aid in tracking osteoporosis. Credit: NASA

By consolidating the controls onto one chip, the devices are smaller, lighter and use a fraction of the energy of multiple-chip cameras. For patients, this means smaller dosages of radiation-as little as 1 percent the dose of a normal x-ray-and a lower cost.

Published by MSFC Technology Transfer Program: At the Hospital with NASA

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