Stars in the same constellation: How the space and health fields benefit from each other’s innovations
New innovations in either space or health care technology can be useful for both sectors, according to a recent research paper by physician Farhan Asrar, professor of clinical health in the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health and assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
The United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space committed to using space technology to help control infectious diseases in 1999, officially recognizing and pledging knowledge exchange between space engineers and health care experts.
However, in a paper published in Canadian Family Physician, Asrar and his co-authors – astronaut and physician David Saint-Jacques and Dave Williams, CEO of Leap Biosystems and a former astronaut – point out that health care has been an integral part of every human space mission since the 1960s. A physician research lead at Trillium Health Partners, Asrar is also a global faculty member for the France-based International Space University and a regular speaker and organizer of conferences about the connections between space and health care.
“For any human mission that has taken place, those involved have to ensure that they can adequately take care of the humans that are going to space,” he says. “The astronaut’s health must be monitored, maintained and assisted during their mission.”
With this requisite for health care in space comes unique challenges not faced on Earth. This requirement – and the innovations that come from it – results in a cyclical exchange in which current technologies are used and improved upon for space travel, and vice versa.
Asrar says that early examples of telemedicine come from astronauts communicating with health-care professionals back home. Years of space developments in telemedicine also informed remote care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, scientists are looking for even more effective ways to provide medical information to space explorers. For instance, if there was a health emergency on Mars, it would take at least 20 minutes or more for the communication to reach Earth. This is where developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence are being used to improve the astronauts’ access to quicker answers, explains Asrar, who is a member of the Temerty Centre for AI Research and Education in Medicine.
In a prior 2021 article in Nature Medicine, Asrar and his co-authors describe the uses of the BIO-MONITOR, developed for the Canadian Space Agency, to store and forward health data from body-worn sensors. They write about how wearable technology offers around-the-clock monitoring of heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, electrocardiogram, physical activity and blood oxygen levels – which are valuable parameters to monitor in patients with active COVID-19 or long COVID. Another familiar device, the infrared thermometer, was a NASA-developed technology now found in hospitals, clinics and pharmacies.
Remote sensing data is yet another example of space technology being used to improve public health. Satellite technology monitors temperature changes that influence the travel patterns of birds, bugs and other creatures that spread infections. “You can actually monitor and plan out the migratory patterns, which could potentially let us know that there is a high influx of certain vectors in certain regions,” Asrar says.
Such technologies are just some of the many examples in which space and health innovations can be exchanged. And there will be more to come, Asrar says. He notes that professionals from both sectors can benefit from development and collaboration outside their own vocations when faced with a new challenge.
“Whether you’re a surgeon or a public-health professional, whether you focus on the macro level, emergency preparedness, or individual health care, there is space technology that could assist you,” he says.