Earlier this week, researchers from Imperial College London announced that they had developed a way to make dialysis more effective for patients with kidney failure—inspired by, of all things, outer space.
Specifically, the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Physics of Fluids, redesigned the Arterio-Venous Fistulae (AFV), a doctor-created connection between a patient’s vein and artery that allows the blood to filter. These pathways can easily become clogged, a phenomenon the researchers attribute to the atypical blood-flow patterns they create. Using a computer program originally created for the aerospace industry, they were able to model blood flow across several different iterations of the AFV.
This is far from the first time space technology has been adapted for earthly healthcare concerns. In 1973, NASA published the first edition of what would become Spinoff, a compilation of some of the inventions that its technology has helped to create. Originally a yearly report presented to Congress, the publication soon went mainstream, shifting to more of a storytelling format as NASA worked to turn Spinoff into a public-education tool.
“It’s the space age become real,” said Daniel Lockney, the manager of NASA’s technology transfer program. “These products and consumer goods enabled by space technology are available to people, and they love to know about it.” The process of what NASA calls “technology transfer” can take a few different forms: In some cases, former employees repurpose their own work; in others, the agency approaches existing companies and offers its technology for industry-specific purposes. Below are just a few of the ways space has made its mark on hospitals, drugstores, and grocery-store shelves.
1. Sleep app
An astronaut on the International Space Station will see 15 or 16 sunrises or sunsets over the course of a day—a stunning sight, but not really one that’s conducive to uninterrupted slumber. In 2001, NASA commissioned a team of neuroscience researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook to figure out how to help astronauts maintain normal sleep patterns. They discovered that the vestibular system, the part of the ear responsible for balance and spatial orientation, also plays a role in sleep: “On one end, high-amplitude, sudden vibration wakes you up,” Seth Horowitz, one of the SUNY researchers, told Spinoffs, “but these low-amplitude, periodic vibrations put you to sleep.” Furthermore, they discovered, the effects could be achieved through sound, with certain frequencies stimulating the vestibular system in different ways.
When the NASA-funded project ended in 2005, Horowitz shifted his focus from astronauts to the sleep-deprived on Earth, teaming up with a composer to mix certain sound patterns into classical music. In 2013, after running tests on people with chronic sleep problems, Horowitz released Sleep Genius, an app that plays music designed to lull its listeners to sleep and keep them that way through the night.
2. Rehabilitation treadmill
Floating around in zero gravity can wreak havoc on the leg muscles, which no longer have their usual load to support. Running can help astronauts prevent atrophy, but staying put on a spacecraft treadmill typically calls for a bulky, uncomfortable harness that pulls the body down. In the late 1980s, a NASA researcher named Robert Whalen proposed an alternative: instead of fighting against the lack of gravity, why not create a new force to do its job? In 1992, Whalen patented an air-pressure system that could replace the harness as a means of keeping astronauts on their treadmills. In 2005, he licensed the technology to the California company Alter-G, which created the G-trainer physical-therapy treadmill. Used to help patients recovering from physical and neurological injures (which can affect balance), the G-trainer air-pressure technology works in the opposite way on Earth, applying pressure to the legs to lift the body up and lighten the load patients have to carry.
3. Acne treatment
Zeno, an over-the-counter device that claims to spot-treat pimples by zapping the underlying bacteria with heat, was the brainchild of Robert Conrad, a Houston man experimenting with ways to cure his own adult acne. Conrad created the first Zeno prototype in his garage, intending to make only one for personal use—but when his friends expressed interest in buying their own, he connected with NASA’s Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program, a Houston-based organization that matches small business with NASA brainpower. A Kennedy Space Center engineer helped Conrad revamp his design into a low-cost, low-energy product, one that eventually debuted to an enthusiastic reception from beauty magazines in 2005.
4. Baby formula
In the 1980s, NASA hired the Baltimore-based Martin Marietta Laboratories to investigate algae’s possible use as, among other things, a source of food for long-duration missions. When Martin Marietta’s contract ended in 1985, a group of scientists who had worked on the project spun off to continue the research, eventually identifying two key compounds in the algae: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and arachidonic acid (ARA), both fatty acids found in human breast milk and thought to be important to eye and brain development. The researchers formed their own company, Martek, to market these two chemicals together in Formulaid, a supplement now commonly found in infant formulas.
Aboard spacecraft, where resources and storage capacity are limited, astronauts drink purified urine.
And back on Earth, thanks to a similar chemical process, they drink kombucha.
Mike Johnson spent a good chunk of the 1990s working on NASA’s efforts to turn human waste into potable water, studying ways to cultivate healthy bacteria that could transform urine into something safe for drinking. Years later, in his second life as a chiropractor, he was struck by the frequency with which his patients brought sugary drinks to their appointments—and then by inspiration.
“We used bacteria to remove the bad stuff from urine,” he told Spinoffs, “so I thought, why not use probiotics to add healthy stuff to a drink?” He began brewing kombucha, a fermented probiotic tea, in the back of his office and offering samples to patients. Today, his teas, which are sold at Whole Foods under the brand name Unpeeled, are billed as “100 percent natural”—though not quite as natural, it’s probably safe to say, as his original source material.