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Space Technology Used to Detect and Treat Heart Disease


Advanced Pacemaker

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 minutes.

Exercise Equipment

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 differently.

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.

Fetal Monitoring

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.

Cardiac Imaging

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 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

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 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.

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.


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.


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Author: Brian Dunbar
Curator: Boeing Information Services
Comments and Questions
Last Updated: Aug 4, 1998