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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

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