Canada is leading the way on health care for astronauts — to be used here on Earth, too

As humans once again begin our foray back to the moon, there are some very serious questions about how to ensure we can do so safely.

After all, space is dangerous. Very dangerous. There’s the threat your rocket could blow up, or there could be a problem with your spacecraft. There’s also a risk of space debris or meteoroids.

But the biggest threat is to our health.

Our bodies were designed for Earth: its gravity, its air, its atmosphere. There’s none of that in space, plus deadly space radiation to consider.

And then there’s just everyday health concerns.

That’s why the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is working to develop technology to be used in space to help astronauts stay as safe as they possibly can as part of its Health Beyond Initiative. But the bonus? That technology is first being developed for those of us living here on Earth.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield performs a fitness evaluation while on board the International Space Station in 2012. (NASA)

One of the initiatives by the CSA is being done together with Impact Canada (a government-wide effort to fund innovation). Called the Deep Space Healthcare Challengeit is a competition open to companies who want to develop new diagnostic and detection technologies that will be used in remote communities in Canada and for astronauts as they head out on deep space missions to the moon and eventually, Mars.

“We’re thinking of when astronauts spend a longer period of time on the moon and get ready to go to Mars they will need to increase their capacity to take care of their own health, to be self-reliant, when it comes to health care,” said Annie Martin, the Health Beyond portfolio manager at the CSA.

“But as we get ready for those missions, we’re looking to apply what we’re learning, what we’re developing for Canadians, improving access to health care, and more specifically, we think of medically isolated communities. So, communities in the north, rural locations, Indigenous communities, military deployment, disaster management, rescue teams, and so on.”

Some people might wonder about what space exploration does for us here at home, but there are numerous things that have come out of humans living and working in space — what space agencies call spin-offs. Some more notable ones include heart rate monitors, sensors used in DSLR cameras, a bone analyzer used to monitor those with osteoporosis and things like memory foam and cordless vacuums.

Even the technology for the Canadarm is used in brain, heart and spinal surgeries.

Similar challenges, similar solutions

However, this time the CSA is doing it the other way around. Instead of something being invented for use in space, the CSA and Impact Canada are looking for technology that can be used to serve Canadians but that can also be used in space for astronauts.

This became more pressing after Canada agreed to help build the Lunar Gateway, a space station that will orbit the moon, and more so when Canada signed on to the Artemis Chordswhich is the agreement to participate in our return to the moon, Mars and eventually beyond.

This illustration envisions what the Lunar Gateway space station will look like, along with Canadarm3, provided by MDA, based out of Brampton, Ont. (MDA)

With that in mind, in 2021, the Deep Space Healthcare Challenge was launched.

There are three stages to the challenge before the final $500,000 award. Already 20 companies have made it to Stage 2.

Some Stage 1 finalists include research from McMaster University, University of Montreal and several independent companies from across the country.

Innovations proposed include a hands-free automated ultrasound machine, by Sonoscope Inc. out of Longueuil, Que.; an ultralight MRI by Pelican MRI out of Saskatoon; and an artificial intelligence-powered virtual medical assistant by ADGA Group Consultants Inc. out of Ottawa.

Canadian astronaut Dr. David Saint-Jacques is part of the jury with Impact Canada. He’s no stranger to either remote health care or living in space. He spent 204 days aboard the ISS from Dec. 3, 2018 to June 24, 2019, the longest of any Canadian.

But before he was an astronaut, he was a doctor and the co-chief of medicine at Inuulitsivik Health Center in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, an Inuit community on Hudson Bay.

While he was on the ISS, he wore a shirt called Bio-Monitor that keeps track of vital signs like heart rate, breathing, skin temperature and more. It’s an example of something he thinks could be used in remote communities.

Saint-Jacques tries the Bio-Monitor, a new Canadian technology, for the first time in space in 2019. The innovative smart shirt system is designed to measure and record astronauts’ vital signs. (CSA/NASA)

“Imagine an elder with bad chronic lung disease. Maybe you can see early signs before he really crashes and needs to be evacuated,” Saint-Jacques said.

“Maybe we can help him out with antibiotics before … there starts to be some signs of more rapid breathing, for example. So this is all blue-sky dreaming, but it is striking to me how much in common the practice of medicine in a remote area and in space have because it’s basically the same problems of long distance, lack of equipment, lack of specialized personnel, communication delays.”

Similar challenges mean similar solutions, he said.

Being a world leader

Dr. Farhan Asrar is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, but he also has a keen interest in how technology used in space can benefit us here on Earth. Most recently he published an article in the journal Canadian Family Physician co-authored by Saint-Jacques and former Canadian astronaut and doctor Dave Williams.

“People might not realize that modern telemedicine, the origins are basically based with the space programs and agencies connecting with astronauts,” Asrar said. “We’ve been using different versions of virtual care and remote medicine, even right now, when there was a whole lockdown going on.”

And he believes that Canada, with its small budget and smaller population compared to the US, holds its own when it comes to providing health care in space.

Astronaut David Saint-Jacques handles the Bio-Analyzer while on board the space station in 2019. The Bio-Analyzer provides blood test results within two to three hours. In the future, the Canadian technology could also help monitor astronauts’ health throughout their missions on board the station. (CSA/NASA)

“I think what I really appreciate, the Canadian Space Agency as a whole, they’ve kind of looked at … what is the expertise that we can still be a world leader, and really kind of focus on it or specialize in those specific areas ,” he said.

That expertise includes astronaut-physician leaders like Dr. Bob Thirsk, Williams, Saint-Jacques and neurologist Dr. Roberta Bondar, Asrar noted.

“The leadership that they’ve taken on at a world level, I would say it’s definitely something that Canada has been playing within the realm of health care and space.”

The CSA is holding its 2022 Health Beyond Summit from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1 to highlight the work to put Canada at the forefront of not only deep space health care, but also in providing health care to remote communities.

Health Beyond’s portfolio manager Martin said that the future looks bright for Canadian innovation and the future of healthcare, both in space and on the terra firma.

“Space exploration is certainly a driver for inspiration, inspiring the next generation and this idea to explore further to see what we don’t know,” the CSA’s Martin said.

“We’re explorers … but as we are exploring that unknown, and looking at where we can extend our presence in the universe, we need to ensure the safety of those explorers. And by doing that, we’re advancing technologies that have immediate benefit on Earth.”

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