NASA astronauts are screened for sound health, among a slew of other requirements, but no one is invulnerable, especially in space. For reasons not fully understood, space travel appears to suppress the human immune system, while some bacteria become heartier and more virulent in microgravity. Meanwhile, aboard the International Space Station, the nearest medical doctor is on the other side of atmospheric reentry. On a future mission to Mars, any emergency return would likely take months.
As part of NASA’s Exploration Medical Capability Element, it’s Ames Research Center engineer Tianna Shaw’s job to minimize the chance of such an emergency ever arising. Among the tools she and other NASA researchers want to use to that end are rapid diagnostic tests capable of detecting health problems accurately and early on.
“We don’t currently have lab technologies we use terrestrially that are of a size that would be acceptable for use in space, at least not on an exploration mission,” Shaw says. Blood work, for example, normally involves a few samples being taken and sent to different locations where they’re analyzed using the kind of heavy, bulky tabletop equipment that would cost a fortune to launch into space. What Shaw and her colleagues want instead would more resemble a home pregnancy test, with a single sample analyzed by one small device that produces results within minutes.
In 2011, Ames awarded two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts to Intelligent Optical Systems (IOS) to deliver just that. The company proposed integrating a sensor platform with a smartphone, taking advantage of the existing technology’s high-resolution camera, processing power, and compactness. For the sensor, IOS envisioned using what’s known as a lateral flow test strip, the same detection technique used in a pregnancy test. The strips would analyze bodily fluids by combining them with molecules that glow in ultraviolet light and also bind with certain biomarkers—substances that indicate a biological condition, such as antibodies that signal the presence of specific illnesses.
IOS specializes in this sort of diagnostic testing, among other products, but to build the smartphone interface, the company turned to Los Angeles-based Holomic LLC, now Cellmic, which was already marketing smartphone-based diagnostic hardware.