The Miraculous NASA Breakthrough That Could Save Millions of Lives

By Brent Rose on at

There are no hospitals in space. The closest A&E is back on Earth, and astronauts can't exactly jump in a cab to get there. So what happens if the sun burps out a massive blast of radiation while an astronaut is space-amblin' by?

The NASA Biocapsule — made of carbon nanotubes — will be able to "diagnose" and instantly treat an astronaut without him or her even knowing there's something amiss. It would be like having your own personal Dr. McCoy — implanted under your skin. It represents one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of medicine, and yes, it'll work on Earth, too.

Out of all the amazing things we saw during our NASA visits, nothing blew our minds as much as this tiny little bundle of carbon. The Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames creates medical technology for astronauts. They essentially provide healthcare for outer space. Dr. David Loftus is the man who invented the NASA Biocapsule and has been awarded a patent for it.

Picture this: An astronaut is going to Mars. The round-trip journey will take between two and three years. During that time, the astronaut will not have access to a doctor, and there's a lot that can go wrong with the human body in space. So, prior to launch, the astronaut is implanted with a number of NASA Biocapsules. A very small incision is made in the astronaut's skin for each Biocapsule (probably in the thigh), which is implanted subcutaneously. It's outpatient surgery that requires only local anesthetic and a stitch or two to close the wound. But after it's complete, the astronaut's body is equipped to deal with a whole host of problems on its own.

One of the primary threats in space is exposure to high levels of radiation. When astronauts travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (i.e., to the Moon or Mars), they are at risk of acute radiation exposure from "solar particle events," sudden releases of intense radiation from the sun, which can damage bone marrow and wipe out someone's immune system. That's where the NASA Biocapsule kicks in: It could be filled with cells that sense the increased levels of radiation and automatically disperse medicine to help the body compensate.

This isn't science fiction. We already use a hormone called G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) to treat cancer patients who are receiving radiation treatment. So it was a very small jump to put these cells in a capsule. Without G-CSF, an astronaut's immune system might not recover; he or she could die of a massive infection.

The Biocapsules aren't one-shot deals. Each capsule could be capable of delivering many metred doses over a period of years. There is no "shelf-life" to the Biocapsules. They are extremely resilient, and there is currently no known enzyme that can break down their nanostructures. And because the nanostructures are inert, they are extremely well-tolerated by the body. The porous nature of the capsules allow medication to pass through their walls, but the nanostructures are strong enough to keep the cells in one place. Once all of the cells are expended, the Biocapsule stays in the body, stable and unnoticed, until it is eventually removed by a doctor back on Earth.

While the treatment of radiation-effects in space is NASA's no. 1 application for the Biocapsule, different capsules will be created to combat different threats. Heat, exhaustion, and sleep-deprivation are serious risks on an EVA (a "spacewalk"), and astronauts are usually on a very tight schedule. Different capsules can be created that contain unique triggers and treatments for different stress-factors. Naturally, DARPA has expressed a huge interest in the Biocapsules for potential military applications. But there are far loftier things planned for us Earthlings.

On our home planet, the NASA Biocapsule's primary target is diabetes — specifically, patients who need insulin. Says Dr. Loftus:

"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."

In other words, diabetes patients might never need to give themselves another shot. They wouldn't have to worry about remembering to bring medicine everywhere, and they might even be free of having to constantly monitor their blood-sugar levels. Plus, many diabetes patients lapse into comas or die during sleep because that's eight hours every day when they can't monitor their levels. The NASA Biocapsules would work automatically, regardless of whether you're awake or not. As of 2010 there were an estimated 285 million people living with diabetes, so saying that this invention could potentially save millions of lives is not an exaggeration.

Secondary "terrestrial" applications include cancer treatment (especially brain cancer). A Biocapsule implanted directly into a tumour bed could deliver very high doses of chemotherapy right to the area where it is needed — and it would greatly reduce side effects by minimising the amount of medication that gets to other sites in the body. There are also important applications in gene therapy.

"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."

During our visit, we asked Dr. Loftus if there could be applications for severe allergy sufferers. Many people have potentially deadly allergies (to bees, to nuts, etc.) that could send them into anaphylactic shock, and they have to carry a shot of epinephrine (an "EpiPen") in case of exposure. He said that was very much a possibility, and implementing that technology into the biocapsule would be relatively simple. He even credited us with coming up with the idea, so in the future when you get stung by a bee and don't die, you're welcome, from Gizmodo.

Given all of these applications (and there are many more), it's not a stretch to say that the NASA Biocapsule could change the face of medicine forever. They are inexpensive and (as you can see in the video) extremely easy to create. The vacuum sucks carbon nanotubes into the mold, you slide the capsule off the mold, you fill it with cells, and then you cap it off either using more nanotubes or a protein glue. Easy as pie. They are scheduled to begin animal trials this year and next, and human trials will begin shortly after that. If all goes well we will likely see these implanted in International Space Station astronauts sometime this decade, and while it's always a wild guess, Dr. Loftus thinks we could realistically see wildspread usage on Earth within 10 to 15 years.

The NASA Biocapsule I made now sits proudly on a shelf above my desk. It is almost certainly the coolest physical thing I have ever made. An artifact from the future. Every time I look at it I feel like I'm looking through a window into another time. Twenty years from now these capsules may be commonplace. We may all have them under our skin, keeping us safe on Earth — or maybe on Mars.


I reached out to Dr. Loftus with some more questions. Here are a couple extra details from the man himself.

People asked how the cells get released from the capsule:
"The cells don't get released from the capsule. The cells inside the capsule secrete therapeutic molecules (proteins, peptides), and these agents exit the capsule by diffusion across the capsule wall."

People asked what fuels the cells, and how they survive within the capsule:
"The energy needed to produce the therapeutic molecules come from the each cell's own metabolism. The cells have access to nutrients that enter the capsule by diffusion (across the pores of the capsule wall), and these nutrients (including dissolved oxygen) support the metabolism of the cells. The lifetime of the cells could be months to years."

I've reached out to him with a few more questions, and will update if I get more information.

Huge thanks to Dr. Loftus for being so generous with his time. On tomorrow's Space Camp, we'll take you inside "The Center of the Universe."

Space Camp is all about the under-explored side of NASA. From robotics to medicine to deep-space telescopes to art. For these couple of weeks we'll be coming at you direct from NASA JPL and NASA Ames, shedding a light on this amazing world. You can follow the whole series here.

Video shot by Bill Bowles, edited by Woody Jang.

Special thanks to Mark Rober, Jessica Culler, Dan Goods, Val Bunnell, and everybody at NASA JPL and NASA Ames for making this happen. The list of thank yous would take up pages, but for giving us access, and for being so generous with their time, we are extremely grateful to everyone there.

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