NASA have unveiled the NASA Biocapsule which they hope will not only safeguard astronauts in space, but save millions of lives down here on Earth.
The biocapsule is a subcutaneous implant that’s designed to diagnose a medical problem and administer treatment; a handy characteristic considering a quick trip to the doctors for an astronaut is about as feasible as bringing peace to the Middle East armed only with a few pictures of some kittens.
Made from carbon nanotubes, the biocapsule is then filled with cells or a substance to tackle a specific aliment. It is then implanted under the skin through a quick operation that only requires local anaesthetic and a couple of stitches.
The substance or cells inside are then diffused through the biocapsule, whilst the inert properties of the carbon nanotubes safeguard the implant against reprisal from the body’s immune system.
Designed primarily to tackle acute radiation exposure from solar particles that could wipe out an astronaut’s immune system, the nanotube detects the problem and deploys cells that will bolster the astronaut’s immunodefences.
The implant could easily be reconfigured to tackle health issues on Earth.
A prime example of how it could be utilised is in the battle against diabetes. Currently, it is estimated that 285 million people live with the disease. The stress of constantly monitoring blood levels and self administering insulin is one of the trickiest parts of living with diabetes. A simple mistake such as forgetting one’s insulin can lead to a coma or worse.
Even trickier is the fact that sleep represents an 8 hour period where diabetics cannot monitor their blood sugar levels, and many die during the night because of this.
The biocapsule could change all of that. Speaking with Gizmodo, Dr. David Loftus, the man behind the capsule, said:
“The capsule would contain pancreatic islet cells (from animals) or would contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells, with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion function. Patients with low-insulin requirement might benefit from implantation of a single capsule (containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells); patients with higher insulin requirement might require implantation of more than one capsule.”
Essentially, Dr. Loftus is saying that the biocapsule could make process of monitoring blood sugar and self administration of insulin redundant, as a single implant may be all a diabetic needs to get by just fine for the rest of their life.
Other applications include treating cancer victims, where a capsule could be implanted directly next to a cancerous growth and pump it directly with high doses of chemotherapy, whilst drastically reducing exposure to the rest of the body.
It could also be developed to help with gene therapy, said Dr. Loftus:
“Some children are born missing a gene, or are born with a defective gene. As a result, they can't make a needed protein. Hemophilia is a classic example. These patients are missing an important blood coagulation protein. The biocapsule could be used to implant cells that are engineered to release the missing protein. Successful therapy would mean that the patients are spared the need to receive periodic injections. Patients would be safely protected by the protein released from the capsule, and they would be able to lead more normal lives.”
Gizmodo even suggested to Dr. Loftus that the tube could be adapted to provide an alternative to EpiPens for allergy sufferers. Currently, those living with severe allergies are at constant risk, with the slightest exposure quickly becoming a life threatening medical emergency. A simple implant could change all of that, with the biocapsule administering the shot.
Better still, the biocapsules are relatively inexpensive to create. Additionally, animal trials are planned for next year, with human trials coming shortly after. It’s quite feasible that we could see this medical breakthrough not just in our lifetimes, but commonplace and saving lives worldwide within the next ten to fifteen years.
Just goes to show how valuable our space programmes really are.
|Original Gizmodo Article|