Technology Used to Detect and Treat Heart Disease
YOUR DOCTOR'S OFFICE TODAY
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
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
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 centers.
Study of the Heart
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.
Physical Exams Remotely
The Telemedicine 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 air.
Medical Data Over NASA's Internet Lines
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.
Technology behind 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.
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.
Measurement of Carotid Artery Disease from Ultrasound Images
Computer methods 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 disease.
Heart Disease with Microwaves
In the future, microwaves and millimeterwaves will be used to
treat certain forms of
life-threatening 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.
Pumps from Aerospace Applications
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
Heart Surgery Drugs
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 research.
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.
NASA, industry, 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
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.
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.
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Curator: Boeing Information Services
Last Updated: Aug 4, 1998