Feb 112012
 
NASA astronaut Robert L. Curbeam, Jr. (left) a...

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There are no hospitals in space.

 
The closest E.R. is back on Earth, and astronauts can’t exactly jump in a cab to get there. So what happens if the sun burps out a massive blast of radiation while an astronaut is space-amblin’ by?

The NASA Biocapsule—made of carbon nanotubes—will be able to “diagnose” and instantly treat an astronaut without him or her even knowing there’s something amiss. It would be like having your own personal Dr. McCoy—implanted under your skin. It represents one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of medicine, and yes, it’ll work on Earth, too.

Out of all the amazing things we saw during our NASA visits, nothing blew our minds as much as this tiny little bundle of carbon. The Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames creates medical technology for astronauts. They essentially provide healthcare for outer space. Dr. David Loftus is the man who invented the NASA Biocapsule and has been awarded a patent for it.

Picture this: An astronaut is going to Mars. The round-trip journey will take between two and three years. During that time, the astronaut will not have access to a doctor, and there’s a lot that can go wrong with the human body in space. So, prior to launch, the astronaut is implanted with a number of NASA Biocapsules. A very small incision is made in the astronaut’s skin for each Biocapsule (probably in the thigh), which is implanted subcutaneously. It’s outpatient surgery that requires only local anesthetic and a stitch or two to close the wound. But after it’s complete, the astronaut’s body is equipped to deal with a whole host of problems on its own.

One of the primary threats in space is exposure to high levels of radiation. When astronauts travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (i.e., to the Moon or Mars), they are at risk of acute radiation exposure from “solar particle events,” sudden releases of intense radiation from the sun, which can damage bone marrow and wipe out someone’s immune system. That’s where the NASA Biocapsule kicks in: It could be filled with cells that sense the increased levels of radiation and automatically disperse medicine to help the body compensate.

This isn’t science fiction. We already use a hormone called G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) to treat cancer patients who are receiving radiation treatment. So it was a very small jump to put these cells in a capsule. Without G-CSF, an astronaut’s immune system might not recover; he or she could die of a massive infection.

The Biocapsules aren’t one-shot deals. Each capsule could be capable of delivering many metred doses over a period of years. There is no “shelf-life” to the Biocapsules. They are extremely resilient, and there is currently no known enzyme that can break down their nanostructures. And because the nanostructures are inert, they are extremely well-tolerated by the body. The capsules’ porous natures allow medication to pass through their walls, but the nanostructures are strong enough to keep the cells in one place. Once all of the cells are expended, the Biocapsule stays in the body, stable and unnoticed, until it is eventually removed by a doctor back on Earth.

While the treatment of radiation-effects in space is NASA’s no. 1 application for the Biocapsule, different capsules will be created to combat different threats. Heat, exhaustion, and sleep-deprivation are serious risks on an EVA (a “spacewalk”), and astronauts are usually on a very tight schedule. Different capsules can be created that contain unique triggers and treatments for different stress-factors. Naturally, DARPA has expressed a huge interest in the Biocapsules for potential military applications. But there are far loftier things planned for us Earthlings.

On our home planet, the NASA Biocapsule’s primary target is diabetes—specifically, patients who need insulin. Says Dr. Loftus:

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