Space Technology Used to Detect and Treat Heart Disease
with irregular heartbeats can lead healthy, active lives, even swim, dance
and jog, with the help of the advanced pacemaker. The implanted device
senses irregular heartbeats and automatically delivers an electrical stimulus
to get the heart back on track. NASA's two-way communication technology,
first used to communicate with satellites, allows doctors to fine-tune
the pacemaker from outside the body to better regulate the heart rate
in keeping with the patient's lifestyle.
To design faster
and safer airplanes, NASA researchers use computer technology to study
how air flows over aircraft at ultra-high speeds. This same technology
has been applied to study the flow of blood in the heart. Understanding
blood flow will help in the design of artificial heart valves and even
artificial hearts and heart pumps. Accurate modeling of blood flow may
help researchers design these devices so that damage to red blood cells
is reduced. The knowledge gained may also lead to reduction in the frequency
of heart attacks by uncovering ways to prevent the formation of artery-clogging
NASA developed a
small device that rapidly separates and analyzes blood, using only a small
drop. Today the automatic blood analyzer is used in doctors' offices to
quickly perform 80 to 100 different chemical blood tests from a single
drop of blood in just five minutes.
NASA electrode technology,
developed to monitor the heart rate of astronauts in space, has led to
exercise equipment that continually monitors the user's heart rate and
sets the machine's pace accordingly. This ensures that the user stays
within a pre-set heart rate appropriate to exercise goals determined by
a doctor or trainer. The exercise equipment is used in gyms and rehabilitation
Women have not typically
been included in heart disease studies and the number of women affected
by the disease is rising. NASA and the Health Enhancement Research Organization
(HERO) are studying how heart disease is different in men and women. When
the study is completed, it will be reviewed by the American Heart Association
and may result in new diagnosis and treatment procedures specific to women.
NASA research has been instrumental in initiating studies about how various
diseases affect men and women differently.
NASA has been studying
how and why astronauts in space experience irregularities in their blood
pressure and whether the body can " reset" its own blood pressure
control by pressing on certain points in the body. Someday patients with
unstable or dangerous blood pressure may be able to " reset" their
own bodies' responses.
In the future, when
doctors need to see a patient's vital signs-heart rate, respiratory rate,
temperature, and oxygen level in the blood - they will use a small probe
that easily fits inside the ear and quickly displays data on a laptop
computer. NASA soon will be using this sensor technology to monitor vital
signs of crew during spacewalks and during Space Shuttle launch and reentry.
Someday soon this technology will be used in medical evacuation airplanes
and ambulances too.
Instrumentation Pack (TIP), flown on Space Shuttle mission STS-89, allowed
the crew to conduct physical exams and monitor one another's heart, lung
and bowel sounds ear, nose, throat and skin conditions electrocardiogram
data and blood pressure and oxygen saturation. The crew forwarded the
data, collected with the instruments in this portable unit, to NASA's
doctors for diagnosis and treatment instructions. TIP can be used in remote
areas, by people with limited training, to consult with medical specialists
in other locations, thereby bringing health care to people in rural communities,
inner city neighborhoods, military outposts, prisons, at sea and in the
Working with the
Cleveland Clinic, NASA is experimenting with transmitting digital echocardiogram
video images over NASA's Research and Education Network, an Internet-based
system. Echocardiography uses ultrasound to produce a motion picture of
the heart in action. The clear images ultrasound produces help detect
unseen heart valve leaks and other heart problems. Using NASA's high-speed
transmission lines to send medical data will help heart patients in remote
areas. This technology was developed to image astronauts' hearts aboard
the International Space Station.
Surgeons are able
to correct certain birth defects, such as heart abnormalities, by operating
on fetuses in the womb. While there are many advantages to this procedure,
post-operative monitoring and care can be very difficult. NASA researchers
working with surgeons at the University of California, San Francisco,
are perfecting a tiny, wireless implantable sensor that continuously transmits
vital information on the health of the fetus through delivery.
a device to monitor astronauts' hearts has led industry to develop a camera
that images the heart six times faster than conventional devices, thus
exposing patients to much lower doses of radiation. This is especially
important to children and infants with heart conditions, since doctors
will usually not subject them to procedures involving radiation. The new
camera makes possible imaging of these tiny hearts -- possibly saving
lives -- with a significant reduction in risk.
Computer Measurement of Coronary Artery Disease from X-Ray Angiograms
NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, in collaboration with the University of Southern
California (USC) - and with funding from NASA and the National Institutes
of Health - is a pioneer in the development of computer image processing
techniques to accurately measure coronary artery blockage from X-ray angiograms.
These techniques, whose development began in the 1980s, can detect very
small changes over time in the coronary arteries. This improves the ability
of scientists monitoring clinical trials to detect the effect of drugs,
diet and other therapeutic procedures on heart disease. These methods
were successfully used in two USC studies demonstrating regression of
coronary disease with cholesterol-lowering diet and drugs.
Computer Measurement of Carotid Artery Disease from Ultrasound Images
also have been developed for very high-precision measurement of carotid
artery wall thickness from ultrasound images. Carotid wall thickness is
an important indicator of arterial disease in general and is particularly
correlated with coronary disease. This ultrasound method, which can be
used to test new treatments for heart disease, can detect very short-term
changes in carotid wall thickness and has the advantage of using non-invasive
ultrasound imaging that poses no risk to the patient. The method is being
used in a number of clinical trials and epidemiological studies at USC
and elsewhere. Measurement of carotid wall thickness has the potential
to assist physicians in predicting an individual's risk of heart attack
and, thus, could become an important screening tool for coronary artery
In the future, microwaves and millimeterwaves will be used to treat certain forms of
irregular heartbeats and to remove lesions from the walls of blocked arteries.
The tiny catheters heat the diseased tissue with microwave frequency waves
and melt blood vessel lesions. Conventional treatments used today to unblock
arteries often damage the arteries causing them to narrow again in time.
The developing technology, used by NASA to study the performance of miniature
coaxial antennas, will reduce this risk significantly. Doctors have just
begun to use microwave frequency ablation on a limited basis in certain,
specific cases of heart disease.
Two heart pumps
are being developed from aerospace engine pump technologies. Pump technology
used in the Space Shuttle's engines led to the development of a heart
pump used in heart surgery. The Ventricular Assist Device was developed
by NASA and Baylor College of Medicine researchers, including renowned
heart surgeon, Michael E. DeBakey. The small pump works in tune with the
heart's own pumping ability, as a temporary measure during surgery. In
the future, the pump will be implanted in patients recovering from heart
surgery or awaiting a heart transplant. This pump is expected to help
a large percentage of the two million people in the United States suffering
from congestive heart failure.
The Cleveland Clinic
and NASA are using aircraft engine pump technology to design an artificial
heart pump. The Innovative
Ventricular Assist Device pump is designed to be permanently implantable
in patients who have suffered severe heart attacks. It has the potential
to reduce heart transplants and save thousands of lives per year. NASA's
technology increases the pump's efficiency and thereby reduces damage
to the blood cells during the pumping process.
In the microgravity
of space, researchers can grow high-quality crystals of proteins that
disease organisms, such as HIV, need to survive and reproduce. Like a
snowflake, every type of protein has a unique and exceptionally intricate
shape. Researchers must be able to see the three-dimensional shape of
a protein in order to create a drug that, like a key opening a lock, binds
to and unlocks the altered protein thereby destroying the specific bacteria,
virus, or defective protein. In microgravity, researchers are often able
to produce higher quality crystals that are critical for pharmaceutical
Factor D crystals
successfully grown during Space Shuttle mission STS-50 have led scientists
to develop a drug that may aid patients recovering from open heart surgery.
Scientists at NASA and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, have developed
a drug to inhibit the human body's inflammatory responses to open heart
surgery. The promising drug, designed to prevent overreaction of the body's
immune system, is due to begin human clinical testing this year.
and university researchers are mapping the molecular structure of the
antithrombin-heparin binding site to improve our understanding and ability
to control blood clotting in the arteries - a condition that can lead
to a heart attack. Protein crystals grown on recent Space Shuttle flights
already have led to improvements in the quality and resolution of the
antithrombin-heparin binding site.
Tissue Engineering in Space
In a collaboration
between the University of Alabama-Huntsville and the University of South
Carolina, scientists have flown experiments on the Space Shuttle to engineer
and grow tissue that may someday act as living patches. This would revolutionize
the way medical science treats damaged heart muscle and blood vessels.
In the future, the International Space Station may prove to be a unique
tissue " factory" that may prolong and improve the lives of heart
patients on Earth.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Media representatives can obtain photo and video resources and contact information for interview opportunities from Ms. Elvia Thompson of NASA's Office of Public Affairs, 202/358-1696.