Feb. 7, 2003 -- The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven crew members also meant the loss of something much less in the public eye — a large amount of medical research data, the product of years of hard work from hundreds of scientists in the United States and abroad.
Columbia was the first dedicated science mission since 1998, and one of NASA's primary goals for flight STS-107 was to use the low gravity environment of space — called microgravity by scientists — for scientific experiments, many of which were dedicated to advancing medical knowledge.
Among the many projects on board were:
Protein experiments, sent up by former astronaut Dr. Larry DeLucas, which used microgravity to grow proteins in a much purer form that can help guide drug development for human diseases.
Vials of prostate cancer cells studied to identify new cancer genes.
Tubes of bacteria and other microbes which would give insights into treatments for infectious diseases.
Laboratory rats and mice that could have helped determine how the Earth's gravity affects our hearts and brains.
Moreover, medical science often benefits in untold ways from the many flight projects that may seem completely unrelated to health and disease — the experiments on physics, data systems, and engineering.
But the shuttle failure has postponed these goals for the time being.
"There was a huge loss for society that all that research was lost — never mind the loss of life," observes James D. Thomas, lead scientist for ultrasound at NASA and chair of cardiovascular imaging at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio.
The Greatest Loss
The most important subjects of all, for innumerable reasons — the seven crew members. While many of the team's experiments may seem to be focused solely on the health and safety of the astronauts, it is the actual human experiments which perhaps have the greatest impact on medicine on Earth, benefiting the rest of us down here on terra firma.
"Some of the more interesting spin-off benefits to cardiology have come from the devices used to monitor humans in space," notes Thomas.
Thomas himself has made significant contributions to the study of heart disease by developing better techniques to image the heart and study its function. Those techniques were originally designed to assess the effects of zero gravity on astronaut hearts. For part of the project he helped NASA get an ultrasound machine launched to the International Space Station.
Thomas says these heart imaging ultrasound projects have already had a tremendous trickle-down effect from space medicine to medicine here on Earth.
"We knew ahead how important this would be for ultrasound on Earth," he explains. "When you take human cells to space, the way they make hormones, enzymes, proteins, express genes etc. — it all changes. And it is these changes that allow scientists novel insights on how our bodies function, both normally and during disease."
Trickle-Down Medicine from Space
DeLucas, who flew on the Columbia shuttle flight of 1992 and is now a professor of biochemistry and optometry at University of Alabama-Birmingham, is keenly aware of the positive influence of space medicine. "The greatest benefit to life on earth is the technology that is gained. Space makes you think differently and look 'outside the box.' It is very difficult to predict now, but there is no doubt that this research will benefit medicine."
A few of the many medical spin-offs of the past and present include:
Body Images: Present imaging techniques that allow doctors to see into the human body were developed from technology used by NASA to enhance pictures of the moon.
Chromosome Analysis: Another type of high-end photography enhancement that helped probe photos of the moon can now find chromosome defects in less than 10 minutes — a test that once took several hours.
Baby on Board: The health of fetuses in the womb can now be monitored with tiny transmitters first created for measuring astronaut's blood pressure and temperature.
Brittle Bones: Hospitals now use instruments to measure bone strength in patients with osteoporosis and other bone diseases that were developed for measuring bone loss on space flights.
Cool Suit: A "cool suit" made by NASA for the Apollo missions is now helping multiple sclerosis patients manage their disease.
Other areas of medicine that have benefited indirectly from space research are muscle physiology and disease, sleep regulation, robotic medicine, bacteria detection, wireless telemetry (transmitting data through space), and heart health.
The Future of Space Medicine
While the demise of the shuttle Columbia is surely a set-back for medicine, many agree that the delay is temporary and focus on the importance of continued space travel and science.
"Many of the famous discoveries in scientific history were by accident. I think it is important to continue pure scientific research which broadens our horizons," explains Dr. Daniel McCarter, director of clinical affairs, University of Virginia's Department of Family Medicine in Charlottesville, Va.
"I don't know what we will find that will be of value to humanity through space missions and exploration, but the philosophical reasons for doing this are the root of human existence. It is our evolutionary advantage," adds Dr. Alan Leff, respiratory expert and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.
And for those who feel the costs of space travel may outweigh the benefits? DeLucas points out, "There will always be people who would like to put an end to space travel, but I don't think that is what our population wants, or needs. Our country has always been about exploration and the pursuit of knowledge."