NASA Spinoff

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

On Earth, gravity can cause a lot of stress to a person’s bones and muscles, whether the stress is caused by running a marathon or simply climbing a staircase. However, in space, the lack of gravity can also cause problems for astronauts’ bodies. NASA is seeking ways to combat these problems, and the solutions are finding application here on Earth.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

In January 2009, birds struck the engines of US Airways Flight 1549 and forced an emergency landing into the Hudson River. Everyone on board survived, and the crew was lauded for remaining calm under pressure and keeping passengers safe. The pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, is a former U.S. Air Force pilot, trained in Crew (or cockpit) Resource Management (CRM) which originated at NASA in 1979. Even before they knew they had an emergency, the crew was using specific training for safe and effective operations: all parts of key NASA CRM methods required by US Airways since 1995.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Beginning in 1985, a team of engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore began developing software to manage various time-consuming tasks for the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990. In the early phases of development, the complexity of scheduling different tasks became clear when the engineers realized Hubble’s power restrictions.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Astronauts, pilots, air traffic controllers, truck drivers, shift workers, and mountain climbers have something in common: All are at risk for impaired cognitive abilities due to stress or sleep deprivation. Whether in space or on Earth, stress and sleep loss can cause a reduction in certain cognitive abilities, such as working memory, reaction time, and problem solving. Because mission safety and success depend on being able to think clearly and function well, NASA began exploring a small, portable way for astronauts to monitor themselves and their cognitive fitness while in space, especially on future missions to Mars that will require extended periods in stressful environments.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

For astronauts returning to Earth, adjusting to full gravity can be just as demanding as any of the challenges they faced in space. While readjusting to Earth’s gravitational pull, astronauts can experience difficulties moving and balancing, headaches, nausea, and even fainting spells.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Since the earliest missions in space, NASA specialists have performed experiments in low gravity. Protein crystal growth, cell and tissue cultures, and separation technologies such as electrophoresis and magnetophoresis have been studied on Apollo 14, Apollo 16, STS-107, and many other missions.

Electrophoresis and magnetophoresis, respectively, are processes that separate substances based on the electrical charge and magnetic field of a molecule or particle. Electrophoresis has been studied on over a dozen space shuttle flights, leading to developments in electrokinetics, which analyzes the effects of electric fields on mass transport (atoms, molecules, and particles) in fluids. Further studies in microgravity will continue to improve these techniques, which researchers use to extract cells for various medical treatments and research.

As part of the NASA Shuttle Student Involvement Program, John Vellinger designed an experiment to study the effect of low gravity on chicken embryos. After his freshman year at Purdue University in 1985, Vellinger partnered with KFC Corporation staff engineer, Mark Deuser, who helped Vellinger design the “Chix in Space” experiment for two space shuttle missions. Their work together laid the foundation for creating Space Hardware Optimization Technology Inc. (SHOT) in 1988, after acquiring a NASA contract for space flight hardware development.

Since 1988, four NASA centers—Marshall Space Flight Center, Glenn Research Center, Johnson Space Center, and Ames Research Center—have issued over 25 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts to the Greenville, Indiana-based company, which has since changed its name to Techshot Inc. For its first 13 years, Techshot served exclusively as a NASA payload company, specializing in space hardware and later, separation technologies. Techshot engineers designed and integrated hardware for three suborbital rocket flights, seven space shuttle missions, and several payloads for the International Space Station.

Working with the Consortium for Materials Development in Space at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Techshot won a contract to develop separation technologies for space application. Separation technologies involve the analysis and purification of proteins or “markers” which reveal information about diseases and the body. With the addition of Paul Todd as chief scientist in 2000, Techshot realized the value of terrestrial applications of separation technology, and explored experimental possibilities with Marshall and Johnson.

Product Outcome
Accustomed to working with the exacting requirements for space payloads, Techshot took a logical step in commercializing separation technology for the equally strict medical field, beginning with an organic separator developed for the Organic Separation Experiment that first flew on STS-57. Next, the company developed advanced separators based on the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP), operated in low gravity without using a centrifugal field. These technologies provide biphasic, electrophoretic, and magnetic separation capabilities.

During early development of these separators, Techshot found the number of cells collected was insufficient for the needs of the experiment, for example, in stem cell transplants. To remedy this, Techshot purchased the license for a magnetic separation technology from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, already shown to produce enough cells for a stem cell transplant. The resulting system—Magsort—is a multistage electromagnetic separator for purifying cells and magnetic particles for a variety of research and medical uses, including stem cell research and cancer treatment, in a much more refined manner than previously possible.

A laboratory apparatus for separating particles (especially biological cells), Magsort separates cells based on their magnetic susceptibility and magnetophoretic mobility. Magsort refines a sample population of particles by categorizing multiple portions of the sample and separating substances into individual parts, instead of as entire sets. As Todd explains, “If you have a mixture of cells—A, B, C, and D—Magsort will separate and collect A and B and C and D and put them separately in the hands of a research investigator . . . . Other existing methods would sort out only B, for example.”

The cells of interest might only be present in low numbers, so refined separation techniques are necessary for effective research. In its magnetophoretic process, the Magsort creates magnetic particles that are smaller than the cell but react only to one certain cell type. The hematological stem cells, for example, have molecules on their surface (clusters of differentiation 34) that can react with an antibody and then attach to a magnetic particle. If the mixture is then placed in a magnetic field, only the stem cells will be drawn to the magnet.

Magsort includes an electronic unit coupled to a built-in computer and a processing unit that includes horizontal upper and lower plates, a plate rotation system, a graded series of capture magnets above the upper plate, and a wheel for sequencing the small permanent capture magnets. The bolted plates rotate, and an interface between them acts as a seal for separating fluids. Up to 15 upper cuvette stations allow for fraction collection; a stepping motor drives the rotation system, causing the upper plate to rotate for fractional sample collection. User interface software displays the status of the various components on a small organic light-emitting diode (LED) monitor: the translating electromagnet, capture magnet, and the rotation of the upper plate.

Techshot is currently developing other separation products for the medical field. A Techshot spinoff company, IKOTech LLC, is commercializing a version of the Magsort called the Quadruple Magnetic Sorter; it is used primarily for stem cell processes and cancerresearch and treatment, including the detection of rare cancer cells and the removal of undesired cells from bone marrow transplants. Another model is being developed for type 1 diabetes pancreas islet transplants. Todd explains, “Right now, it takes two or three donor organs to treat one person. Our process greatly increases the yield.” With enough healthy (transplanted) beta cells of their own, patients’ symptoms could vanish.

Techshot credits the success of their separation technologies with their years of experience with NASA, and consider the company itself a spinoff. Rich Boling, vice president of corporate advancement, claims that Techshot’s years of experience in payloads made their commercial separators possible, as their capabilities as a company were “refined in the crucible of human space flight.”

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

“Dentists,” comedian Bill Cosby memorably mused, “tell you not to pick your teeth with any sharp metal object. Then you sit in their chair, and the first thing they grab is an iron hook!” Conventional periodontal probing is indeed invasive, uncomfortable for the patient, and the results can vary greatly between dentists and even for repeated measurements by the same dentist. It is a necessary procedure, though, as periodontal disease is the most common dental disease, involving the loss of teeth by the gradual destruction of ligaments that hold teeth in their sockets in the jawbone. The disease usually results from an increased concentration of bacteria in the pocket, or sulcus, between the gums and teeth. These bacteria produce acids and other byproducts, which enlarge the sulcus by eroding the gums and the periodontal ligaments.

The sulcus normally has a depth of 1 to 2 millimeters, but in patients with early stages of periodontal disease, it has a depth of 3 to 5 millimeters. By measuring the depth of the sulcus, periodontists can have a good assessment of the disease’s progress. Presently, there are no reliable clinical indicators of periodontal disease activity, and the best available diagnostic aid, periodontal probing, can only measure what has already been lost. A method for detecting small increments of periodontal ligament breakdown would permit earlier diagnosis and intervention with less costly and time-consuming therapy, while overcoming the problems associated with conventional probing.

The painful, conventional method for probing may be destined for the archives of dental history, thanks to the development of ultrasound probing technologies. The roots of ultrasound probes are in an ultrasound-based time-of-flight technique routinely used to measure material thickness and length in the Nondestructive Evaluation Sciences Laboratory at Langley Research Center. The primary applications of that technology have been for corrosion detection and bolt tension measurements (Spinoff 2005). This ultrasound measurement system was adapted to the Periodontal Structures Mapping System, invented at Langley by John A. Companion, under the supervision of Dr. Joseph S. Heyman. Support of the research and development that led to this invention was provided by NASA’s Technology Applications Engineering Program and by the Naval Institute for Dental and Biomedical Research, in Great Lakes, Illinois. In fact, a request from the U.S. Navy spurred the development of the tool: A sailor on a submarine had to be airlifted 1 month into a 6-month tour due to a life threatening case of periodontal disease, costing the Navy millions of dollars as the mission had to be abandoned.

Patented as the Ultrasonagraphic Probe (USProbe) in May 1998, Visual Programs Inc., of Richmond, Virginia, obtained an exclusive license for the system in January 2000. According to John Senn, of Visual Programs, the new device may be one of the major steps forward in the battle against periodontal disease. “The probe should be the next major piece of dental equipment. By using the new technology, dentists and hygienists will be able to perform exams earlier and may detect periodontal disease while the teeth can still be saved.” According to Jack Singer, the president of Visual Programs, “The name NASA has opened many doors for us that may not have been opened otherwise. It gives credibility to a new concept that otherwise might not have been accepted.”

Product Outcome
The USProbe mapping system is a noninvasive tool to make and record differential measurements of a patient’s periodontal ligaments relative to a fixed point, the boundary between the crown and root of a tooth, called the cemento-enamel junction (CEJ). The mapping system uses ultrasound to detect the top of the ligaments at various points around each tooth, and uses either ultrasound or an optical method to find the CEJ at the same points. The depth of the sulcus is calculated as the difference between these two points.

The probe used in the mouth to send and receive ultrasound signals is very small, and additional instrumentation is contained within a standard personal computer, allowing the entire measurement to be computerized. In addition, manual charting of pocket depth will be eliminated, since the data will be automatically transmitted to the computer. In addition to solving the problems associated with conventional probing, the USProbe may also provide information on the condition of the gum tissue and the quality and extent of the bond to the tooth surface.

Visual Programs developed the USProbe as the next-generation, state-of-the-art diagnostic tool for detecting and characterizing periodontal disease. The USProbe automatically detects, maps, and diagnoses problem areas by integrating diagnostic medical ultrasound techniques with advanced artificial intelligence. Visual Programs expects it will quickly become the industry standard technique, replacing the current uncomfortable and invasive techniques. NASA and Visual Programs are proud to contribute technology that will increase the number of healthy smiles and decrease the number of grimaces produced by their maintenance.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Who would have thought that stargazing in the 1980s would lead to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren seeing more clearly today? Collaborating with research ophthalmologists and optometrists, Marshall Space Flight Center scientists Joe Kerr and the late John Richardson adapted optics technology for eye screening methods using a process called photorefraction. Photorefraction consists of delivering a light beam into the eyes where it bends in the ocular media, hits the retina, and then reflects as an image back to a camera. A series of refinements and formal clinical studies followed their highly successful initial tests in the 1980s.

Evaluating over 5,000 subjects in field tests, Kerr and Richardson used a camera system prototype with a specifically angled telephoto lens and flash to photograph a subject’s eye. They then analyzed the image, the cornea and pupil in particular, for irregular reflective patterns. Early tests of the system with 1,657 Alabama children revealed that, while only 111 failed the traditional chart test, Kerr and Richardson’s screening system found 507 abnormalities.

In 1991, NASA transferred the exclusive license for the system to the Vision Research Corporation (VRC), of Birmingham, Alabama, after Kerr sold his company to VRC. Jim Kennemer, VRC’s president, says the basic technology is still the same in 2008. “What makes this work is the optics, the distance, the angles, and the flash. We retained the basic optical principles.”

Also in 1991, VRC began a two-pronged marketing effort for the VisiScreen Ocular Screening System-Clinical (OSS-C): sales to pediatricians and family practitioners, and the widespread distribution of screening services to school systems and other organizations with large numbers of children. That year, the Russell Corporation (based in Alexander City, Alabama, and now also in Atlanta) joined forces with VRC to conduct a large-scale eye-screening program in Russell’s employee daycare centers. In approximately 10 percent of the children, the program identified previously unsuspected vision problems significant enough to warrant follow-up examination by an eye care professional. Because several eye conditions can worsen and even cause blindness if not caught early, there were clear benefits in continuing the screenings.

The success of this program led Russell Corporation to collaborate with Alabama Power and the Alabama State Department of Education to sponsor a program for all kindergarten students in the state. “That was the first statewide eye screening program using advanced technology in the country,” Kennemer says. VRC also contributed to the growth of the nonprofit organization, Sight Savers of Alabama, to provide vision care and assistance to needy children.

VRC has since used VisiScreen to check over 3 million children in schools and daycare centers. “The NASA technology that has made our screening programs possible has truly changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children,” Kennemer says. This impact is one of the reasons the Space Foundation inducted VisiScreen into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2003.

Product Outcome
Using photorefraction, VRC’s VisiScreen photographs a patient’s eyes at a specific distance and angle; light enters the eye, reflects off the retina, and returns an image to the screening system. Specialists at VRC later analyze the images and issue a report to the family or physician, indicating areas of possible concern.

Although not intended to replace examination by an eye care professional, VisiScreen can highlight possible problems that a child’s parents and teachers may not have noticed. The system can detect common childhood vision problems, including myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), astigmatism (corneal irregularities), strabismus (alignment errors), and cataracts, which occur in roughly 1 in every 1,000 infants.

VisiScreen tests the eye for refractive error and obstruction in the cornea or lens. The photorefractor analyzes the retinal reflexes generated by the subject’s response to the flash. If the eye is properly focusing the light, as happens in a child with normal vision, a smooth, clear “red eye” image of the retina reflects evenly from the pupils. For a child who is hyperopic, a bright half-moon reflects from the top of the pupil. In the case of myopia, a crescent in the bottom half of the eye reflects more brightly than the top. Similarly, other potential problem areas reflect differently than a properly focused eye would.

The system provides several major advantages over traditional vision screening with letter or picture charts: children do not need to respond during the test, so anyone, including an infant, can be screened regardless of age or verbal ability; the process is also as quick as taking a photograph, so screeners can process large numbers of patients rapidly.

Pediatricians and family doctors in over 20 states use VisiScreen to identify possible vision problems in children, who are then referred to ophthalmologists and optometrists for diagnosis and treatment. VRC screened approximately 150,000 Alabama elementary school students during the 2007-2008 school year, and continues to offer its services across the Southeast. According to Kennemer, “Over 3,000 had indications of a difference in the power of the eyes called anisometropia, which can indicate or lead to amblyopia.”

Commonly known as “lazy eye,” amblyopia can cause permanent vision loss in the weaker eye if not detected and corrected early enough; “it is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children,” Kennemer explains. Since its inception, VisiScreen has found amblyopic factors in over 70,000 children, or approximately 1 child in 40. “These screenings are vitally important,” Kennemer says, “because if children are not treated before age 6 or 7, they may suffer permanent vision loss; in addition, amblyopia leads to 17 percent of all adult total blindness. Although blindness is not a concern for most children in the screenings, limited vision can affect both social and educational development. A child who cannot see well is at an obvious disadvantage in the classroom, and those who fall behind early in their education are more likely to have additional problems later.”

Through the efforts of VRC and VisiScreen, NASA has improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of children whose eye problems may have remained undiagnosed or otherwise untreated.VRC is planning more improvements and enhancements to VisiScreen, and soon will begin field testing a new generation of the screening system.

VisiScreen® is a registered trademark of Vision Research Corporation.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

A rehabilitative device first featured in Spinoff 2003 is not only helping human patients regain the ability to walk, but is now helping our four-legged friends as well. The late James Kerley, a prominent Goddard Space Flight Center researcher, developed cable-compliant mechanisms in the 1980s to enable sounding rocket assemblies and robots to grip or join objects. In cable-compliant joints (CCJs), short segments of cable connect structural elements, allowing for six directions of movement, twisting, alignment, and energy damping.

Kerley later worked with Goddard’s Wayne Eklund and Allen Crane to incorporate the cable-compliant mechanisms into a walker for human patients to support the pelvis and imitate hip joint movement.

In June 2002, Enduro Medical Technology, of South Windsor, Connecticut, licensed NASA’s cable-compliant technology and walker, and modified them into an advanced walker with a specialized, flexible harness that supports the torso. This eliminated the need for physical support from a therapist. According to Kenneth Messier, Enduro’s president, the company “saw using this cable-compliant mechanism as a way to really improve and revolutionize how physical therapy is done for patients.” The company designed four versions of its Secure Ambulation Module (S.A.M.), a device which provides a stable environment for patients during ambulation therapy. Enduro also introduced electronic linear actuators to give medical staff the ability to adjust and control the weight bearing of each patient, and a digital readout to record settings and track progress.

Enduro further developed the adjustable patient harness system, introducing S.A.M. in March 2003. The pelvic harness comes in various sizes and is padded with NASA-developed temper foam for comfort. The S.A.M. is currently in use for injured veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, DC, and the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital, in Chicago. Kindred Hospital, in Greensboro, North Carolina, is using an institutional S.A.M. for patients weighing up to 1,000 pounds.

Product Outcome
In response to a request from the veterinary community, Enduro engineers developed a rehabilitative device for horses using the CCJ-technology in S.A.M. Enduro secured a license from Goddard in February 2007, to develop the Enduro N.E.S.T. (NASA Equine Support Technology). Enduro believes the N.E.S.T. will revolutionize veterinary equine medicine, opening the possibility for life saving surgery in horses that otherwise may have been euthanized. Like the S.A.M., the N.E.S.T. can adjust for height and width, accommodating horses of different sizes, from smaller horses weighing 1,000 pounds to draft horses weighing 2,400 pounds.

The N.E.S.T. reduces risk both before and after surgical procedures by supporting a horse’s weight. This also allows the anesthetized horse to remain upright, while traditional methods require the anesthetized horse be hoisted upside down by the legs for transportation into the surgical suite, which can cause a dangerous drop in the horse’s blood pressure. After surgery, horses need to stand as soon as possible after waking, since they cannot remain lying down for extended periods. When waking from anesthesia, horses are disoriented and unstable, frequently kicking and thrashing into the padded walls of their stall while attempting to stand. This frequently leads to broken limbs, concussions, and other injuries.

The only other options for a safer surgical recovery are padded recovery stalls and recovery pools, such as the one used for the racehorse Barbaro at the University of Pennsylvania. These treatments have drawbacks and are not appropriate for all cases: for instance, recovery pools require a large number of personnel and are expensive to build and maintain, and there are only two pools currently available in the United States for equine post-surgical recovery. These specially designed pools can cost over
$1 million to construct; meanwhile, the N.E.S.T. will sell for $75,000 to $90,000.

A horse recovering from surgery in the N.E.S.T. is securely positioned in a natural standing position, which reduces complications, limits additional injuries to the horse, and protects both patients and staff from injury during and after procedures. “This equipment revolutionizes how horses recover from anesthesia immediately following surgery as well as allows long-term un-weighted rehabilitation,” said Messier. In the N.E.S.T., the horses remain calm, Messier explains. Conventional un-weighted therapies include underwater treadmills, rehabilitative swimming pools, and harnesses attached to permanent overhead lifts. With any water treatment, however, there is the potential for a dangerous infection if there are sutures from surgical procedures.

Traditionally, even after horses recover safely from surgery, they are still at risk of developing laminitis for months after an injury. One of most dangerous illnesses in horses, laminitis can occur when the “good” limb opposite the injured limb is forced to support too much weight. “The Enduro N.E.S.T. may help prevent the onset of this disease by selectively un-weighting different limbs,” says Messier, which is possible through the use of the cable-compliant joints developed at Goddard. The unit can balance weight individually for horses’ limbs instead of being weighted evenly or too heavily
on one limb; Barbaro was eventually euthanized because of laminitis.

The N.E.S.T. can be used for extended periods of rehabilitation where the horse needs to stand in a controlled, secure environment. It can also be used at equine rehabilitation clinics, or brought to barns where the horses can be treated on site. Horses may even be able to reside permanently in the N.E.S.T.

Enduro continues to invest in further development and exploration of CCJ technology-based devices. A “Sit-To-Stand” version of S.A.M., also based on CCJ technology, is being used to help patients stand independently. The company has developed the S.A.M.-Y, a youth version for patients between 35 and 150 pounds and a maximum height of 5 feet 3 inches. Future Enduro plans call for the development of an adult home version of the S.A.M.

The S.A.M.™ and Enduro N.E.S.T.™ are trademarks of Enduro Inc.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Marshall Space Flight Center develops key transportation and propulsion technologies for the Space Agency. The Center manages propulsion hardware and technologies of the space shuttle, develops the next generation of space transportation and propulsion systems, oversees science and hardware development for the International Space Station, manages projects and studies that will help pave the way back to the Moon, and handles a variety of associated scientific endeavors to benefit space exploration and improve life here on Earth.

It is a large and diversified center, and home to a great wealth of design skill. Some of the same mechanical design skill that made its way into the plans for rocket engines and advanced propulsion at this Alabama-based NASA center also worked its way into the design of an orthotic knee joint that is changing the lives of people with weakened quadriceps.

Gary Horton, owner and operator of Horton’s Orthotic Lab Inc., in Little Rock, Arkansas, was visiting Marshall on unrelated business, when he unexpectedly received assistance with a knee brace he was designing.

He was attending a meeting at the Center, where, once the engineers learned he was an orthotist, they shared with him plans for several newly designed knee joints.

The particular design that caught his eye was one by Marshall employee, Neil Meyers, a mechanical engineer, who had developed a lockable joint with a hinge brake.

Horton licensed the technology from Marshall and then set about applying the design concept to a new type of orthotic, a knee that automatically unlocks during the swinging phase of walking, but then is able to reengage for stability upon heel strike.

Product Outcome
Horton left Marshall with the basic design of the lockable knee joint, but still needed several years of design, development, and testing before bringing the medical device to the market.

Horton contacted Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions (AMS), operating at the time as the Arkansas Manufacturing Extension Network, a program of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority. AMS has been instrumental in helping hundreds of Arkansas manufacturers increase sales and profits by cutting costs and improving manufacturing processes by providing technical and management assistance that improves the quality, productivity, and global competitiveness of state businesses. Through AMS, Horton was connected with Professor John Hebard, of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who helped the orthotist overcome additional design obstacles.

In total, Horton spent 7 years perfecting the design of the knee joint. The result was the Stance Control Orthotic Knee Joint (SCOKJ). Designed for patients with weak or absent quadriceps and varying degrees of knee instability, it is ideal for people with weak quadricep muscles due to polio, spinal cord injuries, and other conditions; such as unilateral leg paralysis. The lightweight orthosis allows patients to regain their mobility and assist them in more energy-efficient ambulation.

Much like the human knee, the selectively lockable joint operates in three distinct but complementary modes: free motion or automatic stance control, for walking, and manual lock, for standing. The device locks the knee when the heel strikes, but then releases when the heel lifts off the ground, which provides the user with a normal gait, while also providing stability while standing. The stance control feature can be triggered by weight bearing or joint motion, according to patient needs.

The SCOKJ entered the commercial realm in 2002 as a very durable option for knee orthotics and has since helped thousands of people.

Stance Control Orthotic Knee™ is a trademark, and SCOKJ® is a registered trademark of Horton Technology Inc.


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