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Part One – Space Tech: High-Tech Military and Aerospace Innovations Changing Civilian Healthcare

From outer space to the battlefield, NASA and the military are at the forefront of life-changing, lifesaving technological development.

High Tech Military And Aerospace Innovations Changing Civilian Healthcare

When industries innovate, those industries thrive.

In the aerospace and military industries, in particular, technological innovation leads to crucial progress, including the development of new technologies that have the potential to save lives. When these technologies are applied to the healthcare industry, though, their lifesaving potential grows exponentially. From NASA to the UK Ministry of Defense, read this two-part series to learn how aerospace and automotive innovations are powering MedTech markets everywhere.

Space Tech

Today, when we think of NASA, we think of Mars. Specifically, we think of Perseverance — the Mars rover launched in 2020 that successfully landed on the Red Planet in February 2021. In recent years, programs like the Mars 2020 and New Horizons missions are blazing trails in the tech-packed exploration of extraterrestrial bodies.

But NASA’s technology is more broadly applicable than many realize.

Collaboration between NASA and the biomedical and healthcare industries dates back to 1979, documented in the Space Congress Proceedings. In that journal, Donald Harrison, MD—the then-chief of the Stanford University Medical School Cardiology Division—and colleagues outlined the role of Stanford University’s NASA-funded Biomedical Application Teams in a technology transfer project between biomedical researchers and the aerospace agency. The goal was simple: identify biomedical issues, match those issues with “appropriate aerospace solutions,” test those solutions in laboratory and clinical settings, and serve as a link to the medical device industry, empowering the commercial production of these problem-solving technologies.

Even decades ago, the technology sounded straight out of a science fiction film. Researchers were developing biotelemetry for pediatric gait analysis in cerebral palsy, intracranial pressure monitoring for head trauma, brain tumors, or cerebral infections, and a versatile, portable speech prosthesis for nonvocal patients powered by aeronautical communications tech.

Today, NASA’s biomedical and healthcare-applicable tech sounds even more fantastical.

Astronaut health and safety are a priority for human-crewed space missions. But this general goal is complicated by the complexities of space travel, from a lack of oxygen to a lack of gravity to how space radiation can impact an astronaut’s body. So, to protect these intrepid explorers, NASA has proceeded full speed ahead on a number of innovations—many of which have benefited those of us with both feet planted firmly down here on Earth.

In orbiting high above the Earth, astronauts on the International Space Station have a problem: access to clean drinking water. NASA’s solution? They created an innovative, high-powered water filtration system that’s compact enough to go to space but powerful enough to make purified water clean enough to be used in medical procedures. Down on the ground, access to clean drinking water is, unfortunately, a well-documented problem: cities like Flint, Michigan, are still struggling with water access after the source of the city’s drinking water was switched in 2014, and in parts of Ethiopia, citizens face everything from water shortages and a lack of clean water sources to poor sanitation. Bringing the ISS water filtration system back to ground level can open up an array of opportunities to provide potable drinking water in communities around the world.

The hazards of human spaceflight are many: radiation, zero gravity, and hostile environments all make sending earthlings into orbit a challenge. But there’s another issue at play. To safely send humans into space, NASA needed to develop a technology to effectively, efficiently, and remotely monitor astronaut health.

Enter NASA’s Nanosensor Array for Medical Diagnoses, described as a “low-power, compact nanosensor array chip.” According to the agency, this innovative chip improves both the quality and convenience of medical diagnoses. After a diagnosis is made, immediate transmission beams data back to Earth, where NASA physicians can make treatment decisions.

The tech places a network of nanochemical sensors on a silicon chip where a monitoring system measures humidity, temperature, and pressure/flow from a single human breath, creating a noninvasive and low-cost diagnostic technology.

According to NASA, their nanosensor array has a variety of Earthbound applications, from medical diagnosis to health monitoring, homeland security, and biomedicine. In the era of COVID-19, an array fine-tuned to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus without the lengthy turnaround time associated with most PCR tests could be invaluable in identifying infected individuals. Beyond COVID, further fine-tuning might allow doctors to diagnose chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease—reducing long-term burdens on the healthcare system—or diseases like cancer before it’s too late to treat.

Innovators at the Glenn Research Center are also contributing to improving healthcare through the development of a subcutaneous structure imager used to locate veins in “challenging” patient populations—like children, the elderly, patients with darker skin, or people with obesity. While this technology was developed for people on the ground, it does utilize preexisting NASA tools, like near-infrared technology that can operate in dark environments and video signal processors developed for space flight.

And in the last few years, innovations necessitated by NASA’s Mars missions have brought NASA-private industry collaborations into the healthcare space as well. For example, when Jet Propulsion Lab engineers were faced with the challenge of developing a robust canister to hold Martian samples that NASA hopes to one day transport back to Earth, they turned to Zeus Inc., a company known for its industrial polymer extrusions and tubing. An extruded expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) ribbon was developed, and the applications exceeded just the mission to Mars. ePTFE is a strong, soft, and flexible material that’s also biocompatible, which means that while ePTFE is used to hold space rocks and as cabling on the ISS, it can also be used as a cardiac suture or to encapsulate cardiac stents.

HealthTech companies like Neurovalens and its suite of Modius products are also benefitting from NASA innovation, this time to manage weight loss. Together with UC San Diego professor V.S. Ramachandran, Modius CEO and co-founder Jason McKeown, MD, tapped into a veritable treasure trove of NASA research on the role that vestibular stimulation plays in fat storage. From there, Modius Health developed Modius Slim, Modius Sleep, and Modius Stress. These three drug-free, headset-based solutions guided by neuroscience send noninvasive electrical pulses to the hypothalamus, improving weight loss, sleep, and stress.

With a plethora of new players joining the Space Tech race to MedTech, this is only a glimpse into the niche market as a whole. In Part Two of this two-part series, we look at how military innovations are powering MedTech, leading to crucial new technological developments.


About the Author

Kayleen is the original MedTech Millennial, a #medtech business strategist, and #HealthTech journalist with 15 years in medical device intelligence and research.

Kayleen Brown, VP & Executive Editor, TMG360 Media

Currently, she is serving as Executive Editor & Vice President of TMG360 Media, a digital platform created to drive brand awareness, patient recruitment, strategic partnerships, and funding access in the healthtech industry. In tandem, she is proud to have been chosen by Newsweek to represent the medical device community as its HealthTech Expert; and sits on the steering committee for ScaleHealth’s ScaleOC, a global innovation ecosystem for the health and wellness industry. Kayleen is known for interviewing the top medtech executives and innovators, moderating panels at medical technology conferences, and leading commercial strategy roundtables and programs.

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