Comprehensive diagnostic system could easily fit in one hand.

In the future, NASA astronauts journeying into deep space may be able to give themselves a health check-up using a small hand-held medical device being developed by a team of scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center, the University of California, Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories.

Radiobiologist Matt Coleman displays a passive flow lateral device for biodosimetry developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It’s a single use protein detection assay similar to the medical diagnosis instrument Coleman helped develop for NASA for use in deep space. (Credit: Julie Russell)
The team members, who have filed for a patent for their small, portable medical diagnosis instrument, were honored Jan. 27 with 2015 NASA Ames technology transfer awards during a ceremony at the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.

The patent covers the development of a comprehensive in-flight medical diagnostic system in a hand-held format weighing less than one pound for human deep-space missions such as a mission to Mars.

“The point of developing tools like this one is for detecting disease from long-term exposure to microgravity and ionizing radiation,” said radiobiologist Matt Coleman, adding that exposures from space exploration can potentially cause degenerative diseases of the bone, heart, and eye, along with raising concerns about cancer.

“Since we don’t fully understand the long-term impacts of space travel, there has been a push by NASA to better understand these effects,” he said.

How It Works

The new device will sample three different types of biomarkers—in breath, saliva, and blood—to detect information about current or future health status and exposure to radiation. Breath and saliva, of course, are non-invasive samples and can rapidly provide information about health assessment, which can be critical immediately following space walks, and prior to removal of any spacesuits.

The key features of the device, the researchers said, include the ability to handle multiple sample types and the ability to measure virtually any biomarker, including future biomarkers as they emerge. Small blood samples can provide information about macromolecular biomarkers, as well as blood cell counts. (See Figure 1)

“Some of the tools we’re developing will be among the first multi-function health diagnostic devices used in space,” Coleman said.

The team first conceptualized the device in 2012. Since then, they have built a conceptual mock-up of the portable medical device and its individual technologies have been tested.

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