Astronomy Influences Advances in Medication & Medical Technology

Continuing the series of blogs, Megan Ray Nichols explores some ways in which developments in Astronomy and space have made their way into the medical field

As long as there have been people with questions, there have been people looking to the stars for answers. While asking the stars for answers might not reveal much, astronomy has been a nearly infinite resource for advances in the fields of medicine and medical technology. How has the study of the stars changed our medical technology for the better?

Imaging Technology

Accurate medical imaging can mean the difference between life and death for many conditions — cancer therapies like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, for example, are most effective when the cancer is detected early.

Imaging software has advanced dramatically in recent years. Even 30 years ago, medical professionals weren’t able to see the things inside the human body they can see today. Many of those advances come on the heels of the same advances made by astronomers in their quest to see further and more clearly into our universe. This quest lead to the discovery of the Fourier analysis.

In essence, the Fourier analysis uses mathematical algorithms to discover clear pictures in the midst of noisy signals. When used to study the universe, it allows astronomers to see a clear picture otherwise obscured by visual noise, radiation, and other forms of interference.

In medicine, this analysis applies to medical imaging to provide the clearest picture possible. This helps professionals provide the best and most accurate diagnosis. A new x-ray camera, developed by researchers in the Netherlands, uses these technological advances to pinpoint cancerous cells, making diagnosis more accurate and guides surgeons to the precise location for surgeries.

Infrared Thermometers

Traditional thermometers rely on reading the body’s internal temperature. Newer digital models don’t need mercury like older ones did but they still use old styles of temperature detection. With a thermometer like that, how could you ever take the temperature of a star? That is where infrared thermometers come in.

These thermometers measure the amount of energy emitted by a star, even from light years away. On a smaller scale, this type of thermometer can also check the human body for a fever by measuring the amount of heat energy released by the eardrum. It’s ideal for anyone who might have to worry about cross contamination such as infants or those who are immunocompromised. Because there is no need to come in contact with bodily fluids or mucus membranes to check the patient’s temperature, there is less risk involved.

Prosthetic Limbs

Artificial limbs have come a long way from the wooden peg legs and hooked hands most commonly associated with pirates. Many of these advances are due to the robotic limbs that NASA has been using everywhere from here at home to Mars.

Traditional artificial limbs were cast using plastic and corn starch — a heavy medium that breaks easily. It’s also repairable. One researcher at the Harshberger Prosthetic and Orthotic Center found that the ET foam — the same stuff used to help insulate rocket fuel tanks — is great for making lightweight reusable molds. This changed the way artificial limbs were made.

Blanks of ET foam could be easily made and sent to practices across the country. By mimicking the robotic limbs that help astronauts do their job on the international space station, artificial limbs can offer similar multi-functional replacement limbs for amputees.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing can be a bit of a sore spot when it comes to the medical field — it’s a useful tool for storing and sharing medical records and information, but it’s also a security risk if not properly encrypted. Astronomy has used distributed cloud computing to make fantastic discoveries. Distributed cloud computing uses the processing power of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of home computers to process collected data. UC Berkley, for example, uses this form of cloud computing in the form of Seti@Home to process data collected by radio telescopes to continue the search for alien life.

Right now, the biggest use for cloud computing in the medical industry involves electronic health records, or EHRs. This eliminates the need for old paper records or charts. Patient information is also easily transferred between medical professionals in different practices.

We’ve been looking to the stars for answers since we’ve had eyes to look up. We’re a curious species by nature, and we always look for explanations. Looking back at the advances we’ve made over the past few decades, there’s no telling what amazing new medical technologies will be available. As we continue to explore the cosmos, we’ll create more astronomical technology. Soon, scientists will adapt it to improve medical technology and our quality of life as well.

This blog post was written by Megan Ray Nichols, a Freelance Science Writer. Find her at Content in the blog post is copyright of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of the Office of Astronomy for Development.