For obvious reasons, most people don’t think of NASA when it comes to medical innovation. But the remarkable obstacles that the agency faces regularly – such as keeping human beings alive and well against the punishing conditions of space – make it uniquely equipped for developing game-changing new technologies.
The most recent and promising of these achievements is the NASA Biocapsule, a very humble looking device (see image below) that may revolutionize the way we do medicine back on Earth. Gizmodo, a popular tech site, reports:
Picture this: An astronaut is going to Mars. The round-trip journey will take between two and three years. During that time, the astronaut will not have access to a doctor, and there’s a lot that can go wrong with the human body in space. So, prior to launch, the astronaut is implanted with a number of NASA Biocapsules. A very small incision is made in the astronaut’s skin for each Biocapsule (probably in the thigh), which is implanted subcutaneously. It’s outpatient surgery that requires only local anesthetic and a stitch or two to close the wound. But after it’s complete, the astronaut’s body is equipped to deal with a whole host of problems on its own.
One of the primary threats in space is exposure to high levels of radiation. When astronauts travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (i.e., to the Moon or Mars), they are at risk of acute radiation exposure from “solar particle events,” sudden releases of intense radiation from the sun, which can damage bone marrow and wipe out someone’s immune system. That’s where the NASA Biocapsule kicks in: It could be filled with cells that sense the increased levels of radiation and automatically disperse medicine to help the body compensate.
This isn’t science fiction. We already use a hormone called G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) to treat cancer patients who are receiving radiation treatment. So it was a very small jump to put these cells in a capsule. Without G-CSF, an astronaut’s immune system might not recover; he or she could die of a massive infection.
So before jumping the gun on its Earthly applications, we should recognize that this incredible Biocapsule will make long-term space travel more feasible than ever before.
One of the biggest and most persistent challenges to manned space exploration has been to ensure the safety and well-being of the astronauts. Not only are their deaths or injuries obviously tragic in their own right, but they tend to fatally erode enthusiasm for space flight and funding. Now we’ll have a better chance of protecting our astronauts, voyaging to further destinations, and keeping the public at ease.
The Biocapsules aren’t one-shot deals. Each capsule could be capable of delivering many metred doses over a period of years. There is no “shelf-life” to the Biocapsules. They are extremely resilient, and there is currently no known enzyme that can break down their nanostructures. And because the nanostructures are inert, they are extremely well-tolerated by the body. The capsules’ porous natures allow medication to pass through their walls, but the nanostructures are strong enough to keep the cells in one place. Once all of the cells are expended, the Biocapsule stays in the body, stable and unnoticed, until it is eventually removed by a doctor back on Earth.
While the treatment of radiation-effects in space is NASA’s no. 1 application for the Biocapsule, different capsules will be created to combat different threats. Heat, exhaustion, and sleep-deprivation are serious risks on an EVA (a “spacewalk”), and astronauts are usually on a very tight schedule. Different capsules can be created that contain unique triggers and treatments for different stress-factors. Naturally, DARPA has expressed a huge interest in the Biocapsules for potential military applications. But there are far loftier things planned for us Earthlings.
I know it’s a cliché response, but this really is something out of science fiction. Imagine a tiny, barely noticeable device within your body that protects you from almost any conceivable threat, that does not expire, and that can work for several years before being easily replaced by minor outpatient surgery. It’s incredible that something like this hasn’t gotten more attention yet.
Now on to the medical applications I was getting excited about:
The capsule would contain pancreatic islet cells (from animals) or would contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells, with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion function. Patients with low-insulin requirement might benefit from implantation of a single capsule (containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells); patients with higher insulin requirement might require implantation of more than one capsule.
In other words, diabetes patients might never need to give themselves another shot. They wouldn’t have to worry about remembering to bring medicine everywhere, and they might even be free of having to constantly monitor their blood-sugar levels. Plus, many diabetes patients lapse into comas or die during sleep because that’s eight hours every day when they can’t monitor their levels. The NASA Biocapsules would work automatically, regardless of whether you’re awake or not. As of 2010 there were an estimated 285 million people living with diabetes, so saying that this invention could potentially save millions of lives is not an exaggeration.
But wait, there’s more:
Secondary “terrestrial” applications include cancer treatment (especially brain cancer). A Biocapsule implanted directly into a tumor bed could deliver very high doses of chemotherapy right to the area where it is needed—and it would greatly reduce side effects by minimizing the amount of medication that gets to other sites in the body. There are also important applications in gene therapy.
Some children are born missing a gene, or are born with a defective gene. As a result, they can’t make a needed protein. Hemophilia is a classic example. These patients are missing an important blood coagulation protein. The biocapsule could be used to implant cells that are engineered to release the missing protein. Successful therapy would mean that the patients are spared the need to receive periodic injections. Patients would be safely protected by the protein released from the capsule, and they would be able to lead more normal lives.
During our visit, we asked Dr. Loftus if there could be applications for severe allergy sufferers. Many people have potentially deadly allergies (to bees, to nuts, etc.) that could send them into anaphylactic shock, and they have to carry a shot of epinephrine (an “EpiPen”) in case of exposure. He said that was very much a possibility, and implementing that technology into the biocapsule would be relatively very simple. He even credited us with coming up with the idea, so in the future when you get stung by a bee and don’t die, you’re welcome, from Gizmodo.
So even if the gene therapy that I’ve been touting doesn’t come to fruition, there is still the amazingly versatile Biocapsule, which can easily be customized to address a wide-range of health problems. Science is never satisfied with tackling just one problem, let alone coming up with just one solution. It’s amazing to think that a technology that was developed to meet a very specific need could spillover to benefit the lives of hundreds of millions of people, if not more. In fact, it already seems commercially viable.
Given all of these applications (and there are many more), it’s not a stretch to say that the NASA Biocapsule could change the face of medicine forever. They are inexpensive and (as you can see in the video) extremely easy to create. The vacuum sucks carbon nanotubes into the mold, you slide the capsule off the mold, you fill it with cells, and then you cap it off either using more nanotubes or a protein glue. Easy as pie. They are scheduled to begin animal trials this year and next, and human trials would begin shortly after that. If all goes well we would likely see these implanted in International Space Station astronauts sometime this decade, and while it’s always a wild guess, Dr. Loftus thinks we could realistically see widespread usage on Earth within 10 to 15 years.
You can see the video in the original article or below:
Keep in mind that this amazing machine came out of the same agency that’s facing austerity and public indifference (albeit mostly directed at the shuttle program and flights into outer space). Imagine what more we could accomplish if most of society was willing to make the investment.
I can easily see this apparatus becoming a standard for everyone. Think of what it can do to people ravaged by otherwise treatable diseases in third world countries, or for the impoverished and elderly in our society. Of course, inventing such solutions tend to be the easy part – developing the ethical, economic, and political means to ensure they actually go to the people that need them is a different story.
Still, as far as most innovations go, this one seems to have few noticeable caveats so far. Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see how the coming trials work out. But as always, I’m very excited to see a world where millions of people will live longer and happier lives thanks to the persistence and potency of the human mind.
To learn more about the Biocapsule’s incredible inventor, Dr. David Loftus, click here for his contact info. Needless to say, this man and his collaborators must be extremely proud of what they’ve done. I can imagine no greater feeling than learning that you may have just saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It’s an achievement few people could ever reach.