Space & Science: A Happy Marriage5 min read

How medical technology in space is helping pave the way for the rest of the world

Mars, here we come!

Humans are going to Mars — at least, that’s the hope. In early 2017, NASA announced their goal to get humans onto the infamous red planet by the year 2033. As they continue to conduct studies for their prospective Human to Mars Mission, the technological repercussions have been felt here on Earth.

NASA is helping to cure cancer…

Experiments for space related missions are oftentimes conducted in zero gravity chambers, located on the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is a habitable satellite in Earth’s lower atmosphere and the results from such tests have potentially positive results for cancer patients. Some of these results have included possible leads for fighting cancer. “A new investigation in space is trying build a drug to to help the immune system kill cancer cells, which would prevent a given type of cancer from happening again in a patient. Investigators hope to make this possible using a new drug and antibody combination that could decrease the nasty side effects (such as nausea and hair loss) that are common with patients using chemotherapy, NASA officials said in a statement.”

What the heck is a genome and what does it have to do with cancer?

While cancer is an incredibly complex subject in itself, the simplest way to explain it in layman’s terms comes down to “gene mutation.” Cancer comes in a multitude of forms, and its causes range as well. From lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise, to genetics and exposure to carcinogens, the causes of cancer very greatly and are still being researched. 

This is where genomics comes into play. In order to understand genomics, first understanding what a genome is, is crucial. A genome is essentially the bluebook for making an organism — meaning that a genome is, in a way, a recipe for DNA. The study of genomes and their interaction with their environment is known as genomics.

A genome is the total of any one organism’s DNA, and cancer identification is conducted by studying the cancer’s particular genome. Depending on the kind of cancer someone has makes a difference in the way it is initially detected. For example, skin cancer can be detected by looking for new mole growths on the skin, while tumors in the head are can be found through X-rays.

According to cancer treatment clinic Augusta Oncology, “With the power of genomics, doctors can get a better picture of a patient’s blood cancer….This field of scientific research looks at the genetic material present in our DNA. By studying our genomes, doctors get valuable information about each patient’s individual biology. Doctors can examine the genetics of each patient’s cancer cells to understand them. They can tell what drives their growth. Using this information, they can create a custom treatment plan that’s tailored to each patient’s biology.”

Tech in Medicine

One of the common methods used by medical professionals to do this is through medical imaging. Tools used to develop medical images include MRI scanners and ultrasounds, and oftentimes provide necessary information when cancer screening.

According to the University of Cincinnati, Medical images are a crucial component of the diagnosis process. Without these medical images, radiologists are not able to properly diagnosis and treat diseases…The development of new energy sources – such as magnetic, optical or nuclear – and digital recording techniques has provided the radiology community with more extensive and effective options in identifying disease. In fact, due to the extending scale of measurement, medical imaging is currently in the process of transcending anatomy and entering into the fields of molecular medicine and genomics, which will provide patients with more effective, personalized treatment options.”

The importance and impact technology has in the medical field cannot be underestimated. The gap between space research and medical research is continually shrinking. No longer are only cancer treatments centers making new discoveries, but more and more everyday medical professionals are discovering the benefits of incorporating technology within their common practices — much of that tech stemming from uses in space exploration. As such, some credit must be given to those working from space for the continual development of cancer research methods.

Tech in Space

Take for example the deal between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Cancer Institute. According to NASA’s website, NASA’s Jet Propulsion renewed a partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which is “extending the development of data science that originated in space exploration and is now supporting new cancer discoveries… As JPL and NCI’s collaboration advances, next steps include image recognition technology, such as helping Early Detection Research Network (EDRN) archive images of cancer specimens. Those images could be analyzed by computer vision, which is currently used to spot similarities in star clusters and other astrophysics research.”

In fact, the connection between space exploration research and medical advancements is becoming increasingly stronger. Perhaps it was best said by Dan Crichton, head of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Data Science and Technology, From a NASA standpoint, there are significant opportunities to develop new data science capabilities that can support both the mission of exploring space and cancer research using common methodological approaches.”

Essentially, artificial intelligence is helping scientists both in space and on planet earth to read data. The data being read by artificial intelligence has to do with information collected in regards to cancer research, and similar artificial intelligence is used by NASA scientists working for the Jet Population Lab. Now, this artificial intelligence is not completely replacing scientists in their own field, but rather it’s there to catch what the scientists could potentially miss.

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It may seem like an odd combination, but the connection between space and our bodies is closer than we may think. The medical field is gaining new perspectives into possible cures for cancer with technology that has become increasingly available through research done for space exploration. Medical professionals like those at Augusta Oncology can continue their specialized treatment plans for cancer patients and perhaps see further developments in the future. Thanks in part to some of the work being done on board NASA’s Jet Propulsion.


Avery Phillips is a freelance human based out of the beautiful Treasure Valley. She loves all things nature, especially humans, and was driven to pursue an Anthropology degree due to her childhood love of Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. Now she lovingly writes about all things great and small.

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