ShareThis Page

Carnegie Mellon project could make surgery in space possible

Jason Cato
| Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

The health of astronauts on space missions to Mars could hinge on research conducted along the banks of the Monongahela River.

Biomedical engineering researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, with a colleague from the University of Louisville, are developing a device that would enable surgery in space — which isn't currently possible, despite what science fiction leads us to believe.

“It's a big challenge that we will have to address if we want to push beyond low-Earth orbit,” said Jennifer Hayden, 26, a Carnegie Mellon doctorate student and project researcher. “Even a simple procedure could turn into an emergency in space.”

A major challenge to performing surgery without gravity would be keeping blood and bodily fluids from contaminating the cabin.

The researchers designed the water-tight Aqueous Immersion Surgical System, or AISS, to cover and isolate a wound. Filling it with fluid would create a pressurized environment to help stop bleeding. Surgeons would access the wound through airtight arm holes in the device.

Astronauts requiring medical procedures are brought back from the International Space Station within 24 hours, Hayden said. That wouldn't be possible on a round-trip mission to Mars, which would take two years or more.

“There's always a risk that something can happen,” said Hayden, who is working with professors James Antaki and James Burgess, a neurosurgeon who invented AISS.

The research is under way at Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh Technology Center along Second Avenue, across the Monongahela from the South Side.

NASA established the Human Research Program to encourage advancements in physiology, environment and technology that would enable ambitious space travel. Two years ago, the government set goals of launching astronauts to a nearby asteroid by 2025 and to Mars a decade later.

French doctors in September 2006 performed the first operation on a human in zero-gravity conditions. They removed a cyst from a man's arm while aboard a plane that flew parabolic curves to give doctors periods of weightlessness.

The Carnegie Mellon team will undergo a similar experience. From Oct. 2-5, researchers will perform tests using the astro-surgical system on four flights aboard NASA's zero-gravity C-9 aircraft at the Johnson Space Center near Houston.

More zero-gravity experiments are slated for the next three years, and at least one sub-orbital flight test is possible, said team member George Pantalos, a professor of surgery and bioengineering in Louisville. Pantalos flew 27 zero-gravity flight missions for NASA.

He dreamed of becoming an astronaut as a child and applied but has not been selected for a space mission.

“I've been a space cadet ever since we launched,” said Pantalos, 60.

Hayden, a New Jersey native, worked for four years in research and development for Ethicon Inc., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary in Summerville, N.J., before starting her studies in Pittsburgh last year.

AISS was developed for ground-based uses, but the team realized it had space applications. That's when Hayden considered a future in space medicine.

“I never could have imagined doing this as a career before,” she said.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.