Can we perform surgery in space?

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What happens if an astronaut gets sick or injured in zero gravity of space? Can we perform surgery in space? On the moon, you’re over three days away, or on Mars, you could be as much as eight months away. Not everybody on a crew to Mars is going to be a physician. You have to be able to operate autonomously. Dr. George Pantalos and the team at the University of Louisville are working with NASA, Carnegie Mellon University, and Baylor College of Medicine to develop novel ways to perform complicated procedures in near-zero gravity.

When you’re working in weightlessness, it completely changes how you interact with your instruments, how you interact with your supplies and equipment, how you interact with your patient. Whoever is providing the care has to be somehow or another fixed in place, as does the patient so that you can interact with them successfully and safely.

In addition to overcoming the challenges of weightlessness, the team has to consider the size, shape, and efficiency of medical tools. You can only take so much with you given the thrust capabilities of the launch vehicle, the power, the volume available for storage in the spacecraft, and everything. As we’re starting to anticipate using a robot as a surgical assistant during a spaceflight, might we need to redesign some of the surgical tools, both to make them easy for the robot to identify visually, as well as to pick up with their fingers, and to then hand it to the surgeon when the surgeon needs it, or to manipulate the instrument themselves.

George and his students have brainstormed and built several answers to the challenge of space medicine, from fluid containment to 3D-printing. When they are working in weightlessness, especially when they are doing new procedures and working with new materials, and materials that might be hazardous, they want to make sure that they don’t get out into the rest of the environment.

Astronaut works with experiment hardware inside the micro-gravity science glove-box.

A glove box is a container that you put an object in to keep it from getting away, simply put, or to provide special treatment. They had to create a very brand-new glove box that will fit in the size limitation of the suborbital spacecraft. During surgery on the earth, you might have one instrument to provide suction, you might have another instrument to provide cautery. They have created an instrument that combines all of those things together, so in one instrument the surgeon, at the push of a button, can do suction, irrigation, illumination, and eventually will be able to do cautery.

They have developed a hemispherical dome, that you can put over the location of where the surgery is going to take place to contain surgical fluids. With wound waste recovery, the idea is to recover all of these fluids and try to filter it and treat it. The output from that would be drinkable water, sterile water, or sterile saline. For an exploration space mission, there will be some kind of fabrication module onboard that can 3D print plastics, polymers, metals, tissue, electronics, and hybrid materials. Those materials can be recycled and put back into the source material storage to 3D-print for some other tool, or a replacement part that might come up needed later in the mission.

Once George and his team are ready to test out their new designs, they’ll travel to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they will test their tools on the NASA zero-G plane. Though it takes several years for the designs to be tested and approved by the FDA, George’s research is paving the way for safer and more feasible human space travel. If we can accomplish this kind of medical care during an exploration space mission, there is a good chance we could do it, let’s say, on a lunar colony that’s been established for visitors to come and visit the moon. Now, as it turns out, medical tools and instruments and monitors that are going to be used in spaceflight could potentially be very beneficial to make surgical procedures back on the ground go a lot better.


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