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Space Technology Used to Detect and Treat Heart Disease
Astronauts who spend extended periods in space often experience weakening of their hearts
and blood vessels. As doctors and researchers work to understand why this happens, many
of their findings can be applied to heart disease. In the month of February, when people's
attention turns to matters of the heart, and in recognition of American Heart Month, NASA
today highlighted how its research and technology has led to breakthroughs in the
understanding, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease - the number one killer of American
men and women.
"I am proud that NASA research is helping doctors treat heart disease," said NASA
Administrator Daniel S. Goldin." This is a fascinating time for medical science, when the
developments of our aeronautics and space programs can be applied to a disease that affects
so many here on Earth."
Some startling facts:
Heart disease is the leading cause of death of both men and women in the United States.
About 60 million Americans have high blood pressure. If left untreated, it can lead to heart
attacks, stroke and other medical problems.
Until very recently, heart disease has not been recognized as a major risk for women. Since
1984, more women than men have died of heart disease.
Whether researching ways to keep astronauts healthy in space or transferring aerospace
technologies to industry, America's space program has helped revolutionize the practice of
medicine. NASA's research on the cardiovascular system is leading to many breakthrough
discoveries, testing procedures and treatments. Many are less painful, less costly, and less
traumatic to patients. A few of today's space-derived improvements include blood pressure
monitors, self-adjusting pacemakers, EKGs, exercise equipment and ultrasound images.
The technology of tomorrow will include microwave surgery, tissue replacement, heart
pumps, low radiation imaging, and fetal imaging.
"Who would have dreamed that lasers used to measure Earth's ozone layer could be used to
unclog arteries," Goldin continued. "If the past is our guide, our future in space will
continue to advance medical science."
NASA is working with the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services, dozens of hospitals, researchers and private companies. These
collaborations have resulted in successful new programs to diagnose and treat heart disease.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Scroll down for information about four technologies in doctors' offices
today and 13 technologies for the future or go to:
Background resource material for media representatives, including photos, video, and points of
contact for interviews, is available by calling Elvia Thompson,
NASA Headquarters Public Affairs, at 202/358-1696.
IN YOUR DOCTOR'S OFFICE TODAY
Patients 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.
Blood Flow Modeling
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 clots.
Automatic Blood Analyzer
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.
Gender-Based 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
Controlling Blood Pressure
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.
Monitoring Vital Signs
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.
Conducting 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.
Sending 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.
Computer Measurement of Coronary Artery Disease from X-Ray
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
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.
Treating 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.
Heart 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
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.
Designing 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 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.