Tensions between the West and the U.S.S.R. ran astronomically high during the early 1980s. The British-American tag team duo of Prime Minister Thatcher and President Regan had begun to ramp up pressure on the Russians with a war of words. But political rhetoric aside, one of the only other ways to assert dominance over Cold War foes was through space exploration.
The Soviets had a space station orbiting the earth at the time called Salyut, but in 1982 one of the onboard astronauts complained of severe abdominal pain and the controllers back in U.S.S.R. suspected he had appendicitis.
Eager for the U.S.S.R. not to have an astronaut perish in space on the world stage, the controllers decided to evacuate the crew so the ill commander could seek treatment back on earth. As it turned out he was suffering from prostatitis, a bacterial infection treated with a course of antibiotics. Nevertheless it presented galactic healthcare questions: Which treatments could be carried out beyond our world? And which ones require an emergency evacuation?
These are questions that are still looming 30 years later. NASA has a sub-organization called the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), to which it devotes about $24 million each year to fund and encourage research that enables safe human life in space.
Astronauts are typically some of the fittest people humanity has to offer. The tests and training they go through are vigorous beyond words, which means incidents of medical mishaps in space are relatively rare. This, despite the fact that the world beyond our atmosphere conspires against astronauts’ health in an assembly of ways.
“We have adapted to a gravity environment. Our heart is a muscle, it works against gravity, and it requires a consistent force against it. Our bones and other muscles have adapted to work in a similar manner,” said Dorit Donoviel from the NSBRI.
“If there is an emergency up there with one of the crew members, we can probably get them back within 24 hours,” Donoviel told HealthBiz Decoded. But now NSBRI leadership is beginning to think about how to manage healthcare on a moon colony or a more long haul mission to Mars that would make it impossible to return to earth in 24 hours. In this spirit, the organization recently granted $250,000 to a California healthcare startup company, Cerebrotech.
“The device is completely non-invasive. We place small antennas on the outside of the head, and we pass low-power radio waves through the brain and into a detector,” says Mitch Levinson, CEO of Cerebrotech. “The changes in the radio waves as they pass though the brain tell us a lot about the fluid in the brain.”
Levinson is a self-described “serial-entrepreneur” and has seen success with four previous healthcare startup companies.
A build up of fluid in the brain can be indicative of a number of maladies, stroke being one of the more pertinent examples. Too much fluid between the brain and the skull increases pressure, which can cause an irreversible loss of cognitive function. The idea behind Levinson’s technology is to identify the liquid before it accumulates and causes brain-damaging pressure. “We can detect early stages of bleeding and swelling,” says Levinson.
“The Cerebrotech device is a very early marker, before you even start to see pressure changes,” says Donoviel. “For us this project was a no-brainer because not only did it meet a need for the astronauts, it also meets a need for earth markets. Right now there are no non-invasive ways to measure what’s happening in the brain, you have to stick a needle in the skull or spine.”
Officials at the NSBRI could see the Cerebrotech helmet become part of the medical kit that accompanies astronauts on missions involving travel over a great distance that takes more than a day to return from. The helmet could detect the fluid early and grant enough notice for the astronaut to return to Earth and seek intervention.
The “device” is currently in what Levinson calls the “clinical evaluation stage,” but he doesn’t expect it to be ready for private markets for at least a few more years.