The National Biocomputation Center is a joint partnership between the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Founded in 1997, the goal of the Biocomputation Center has been to develop advanced technologies for medicine. Researchers at this center apply 3-D imaging and visualization technologies for biomedical and educational purposes, as well as support NASA’s mission for human exploration and development of space. It is the test bed for much of NASA’s advanced telemedicine research.
Telemedicine, the remote delivery of medical care, is important to the Space Agency, because often times those who are in need of clinical care and monitoring are as far away as the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting roughly 240 miles above the Earth. Researchers on the ISS often have backgrounds in aeronautics, physics, geology, and engineering, and are expected to conduct a wide variety of experiments in these fields, as well as perform sophisticated repairs and construction projects. While these astronauts are always well skilled and capable, what they are usually not, are medical doctors. Even if a crewmember were a doctor, though, the strict equipment weight restrictions and tight quarters aboard the orbiting laboratory would prevent the station from supporting a clinic full of medical testing equipment. The approach of telemedicine, then, aims to give astronauts in space access to a full range of medical expertise and tests, while leaving bulky equipment and large medical staffs on the ground.
With astronaut health being a top priority of the Space Agency, astronauts manning the ISS year-round, plans to set up a permanent research station on the Moon (about 238,900 miles away), and eventual travel to Mars (a whopping 46,500,000 miles away), it becomes clear that NASA has a great deal invested in learning how to monitor astronaut health and provide emergency care, while keeping the medical support facilities and crews on Earth. These techniques and technologies developed for space travel also have applications here on Earth, where some areas are so remote that they may seem as easily accessible as the Moon.
Toward these efforts, a team of researchers at the joint research center developed a personal physiological monitoring device called Lifeguard. The device is an unobtrusive, easy-to-wear system of lightweight, rugged medical sensors. It is capable of logging physiological data, as well as wirelessly transmitting it to a portable base station computer for display purposes or further processing. The system was extensively tested for monitoring people in remote locations performing high-risk activities, including mountain climbers, and astronauts training underwater at the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations facility in Florida. The system proved successful and generated a great deal of interest in the medical community, for athletic training, for first responders, and for military field use. Interestingly, though, the first commercial application of the technology is for environmental monitoring.
In early 2005, researchers at the National Biocomputation Center formed a spinoff company, Intelesense Technologies, to provide integrated global monitoring systems, using the sensors developed at the center for monitoring astronaut health in space. One of nine companies to spin off from work conducted at the center, Intelesense uses the monitoring systems to help researchers understand how environments and people are linked, in order to monitor and protect natural resources, predict and adapt to environmental changes, and provide for sustainable development, as well as to reduce the costs and impacts of natural disasters and provide an effective and intelligent response to such disasters.