Mars made headlines recently with the successful touchdown of the rover Perseverance. It took almost seven months for Perseverance to touchdown on the Red Planet’s surface where it will study Mars’ habitability, seek signs of past microbial life, collect and store samples of selected rock and soil and prepare for future human missions. This mission, however, did not need to account for the health and well-being of a crew, nor did it need to help mitigate the health risks that humans will someday face in missions to Mars.
For these future deep-space missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) is specifically tasked with discovering and funding disruptive technology that will help safeguard humans from space hazards, such as radiation.
One TRISH project team, led by Dr. Frederic Zenhausern at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix, is developing a device that will allow astronauts to monitor their radiation exposure while also observing cognitive performance of critical tasks during the mission.
The new test strip is a Vertical Flow Immunoassay (VFI) diagnostic test and measures radiation biomarkers, from proteins to genes, in bodily fluids. Dr. Zenhausern and his team considered the challenge of sending medical tests on a Mars mission from multiple aspects, including making this device small to minimize waste, making it easy to transport and simple to use for any crewmember, no matter their background.
From Cosmic Radiation to COVID-19
In addition to preparing for unknown scenarios in deep space exploration, Dr. Zenhausern’s technology also has Earth applications and is being applied to address the COVID-19 health crisis.
The need for rapid diagnostic tests for the virus has been and continues to be crucial. Multiple challenges of the pandemic included shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the need for nose swabs to be administered by health care professionals, no at-home tests, and delays with labs processing test results. Dr. Zenhausern has begun building a prototype for COVID-19 that is accurate, comprehensive, and faster that currently available tests. The new diagnostic test can be self-administered via a small finger-prick of blood or a spit of saliva. The liquid is then pushed through a paper membrane and the molecular signature is analyzed by an algorithm on a cloud server, sending results back to the user in less than 15 minutes.
Meeting the population’s health needs in the face of a worldwide pandemic has created opportunities to improve Earth’s healthcare delivery systems. TRISH is supporting research to meet the health needs of future astronaut crew, while also supporting innovation for use today.