Space Stations

NASA Manages Astronaut Health With Effective Diagnostics Research

By Keith Cowing
NASA
September 8, 2022
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NASA Manages Astronaut Health With Effective Diagnostics Research
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti operates rHEALTH
NASA

As NASA prepares to send astronauts further into space for longer durations, managing and maintaining their health is a top priority. Researchers and engineers are currently testing a suite of medical diagnostic devices aboard the International Space Station that will help astronauts evaluate their physical condition.

In a recent technology demonstration mission, experts from NASA’s Human Research Program’s Exploration Medical Capability (ExMC) team successfully tested the Reusable Handheld Electrolyte and Laboratory Technology for Humans (rHEALTH) ONE biomedical analyzer, a portable device that uses laser technology to diagnose illness or injury.

Launched to the station in February, rHEALTH is a miniature flow cytometer that can detect cells and other biomarkers to assess biological changes. It was put through a series of tests on the space station over two days by astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency).

The ExMC research group, which is working to provide medical tools and capabilities for astronauts to use in exploration spaceflight, adapted the rHEALTH analyzer for use in microgravity.

There are a variety of medical conditions that can affect astronauts who live for prolonged periods in space including blood clots, kidney stones, radiation exposure and a range of other illnesses and injuries. But access to traditional medical diagnostics and treatments when working on the Moon or even Mars would not be available.

“Astronauts could use rHEALTH to perform a full self-diagnosis without technical training,” said Eugene Chan, inventor of the unit. “They only need a drop of blood, saliva, or urine to put into the reader and within minutes they have the results of a range of crucial health indicators.”

The device offers a two-pronged approach– a sensor is affixed to the chest and streams real-time vital signs to the astronauts and NASA’s medical team on Earth. Additionally, the astronaut collects a single biological sample (e.g., blood, salvia, etc.) on a nanostrip and inserts it into the device. Once inside the rHEALTH reader, microfluidic technology performs dilution, mixing, and complete sample prep.

The sample is then exposed to two lasers that read and analyze it, collecting over 100 million raw data points for particles the size of cells. Thousands of tests are recorded, referenced to calibrators, and then finally communicated to the astronaut and physicians on the ground within minutes. This type of demo using small samples is the first of its kind in orbit, allowing astronauts the potential to get much more biomedical information, faster.

Before the launch to the station, the rHEALTH analyzer was modified to function in microgravity. While gravity pulls water to the bottom of containers and air rises to the top, the two float freely together in space. Engineers had to adapt all the external connections to seal the water in and create air/water separation techniques to keep air bubbles out. The rHEALTH unit pushes water with air pressure to flow a sample through the device. Engineers had to design a container that could be squeezed easily and made an assembly with soft medical balloons that looks just like a pair of lungs.

“NASA has made a concerted effort to sponsor and test medical technologies over the past decades to advance human health and performance in space. rHEALTH is a great example of this partnership between NASA and industry to bring the best technologies to flight,” said Gail Perusek, project manager for ExMC and co-investigator for rHEALTH at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. “Each of these successful tests on the space station help us get closer to designing and building a complete integrated medical architecture to accompany our explorers into deep space.”

The ExMC’s mission includes advancing medical system design for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and promoting human health and performance in space in collaboration with other scientists. These scientists evaluate various commercially available medical technologies developed on the ground to test them aboard the space station for potential use in future exploration space missions.

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