SciTech

Researchers to test system that helps with astro-surgery

On Oct. 2 - 5, a team of Carnegie Mellon researchers will test an astro-surgery technique aboard the NASA C-9, which will simulate zero-gravity conditions.  (credit: Courtesy of AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon via flickr ) On Oct. 2 - 5, a team of Carnegie Mellon researchers will test an astro-surgery technique aboard the NASA C-9, which will simulate zero-gravity conditions. (credit: Courtesy of AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon via flickr )

The successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars has rekindled America’s desire to explore the red planet. President Barack Obama has said that he would like to see the success of a manned space exploration to Mars by 2030. But before NASA can successfully conduct a mission to this unexplored realm, it must first be able to ensure the health of its astronauts during the eight-month journey.

A team of biomedical researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Louisville have joined this effort. They are developing a dome-shaped containment unit, called an Aqueous Immersion Surgical System (AISS), that makes performing surgeries in the zero-gravity conditions of outer space a reality.

The project stems from an idea proposed by James Burgess, a neurosurgeon at Allegheny General Hospital who wanted to develop a tool that would prevent blood from filling a surgical cavity and blocking a surgeon’s view. Carnegie Mellon biomedical engineering professor James Antaki, with the help of Ph.D. student Jennifer Hayden, refined a system to surround the surgical wound with a watertight dome and utilize water pressure to control bleeding.

The surgical dome is sealed to the skin around the injury to prevent contamination. Multiple holes are on the dome’s surface: One allows entry of pressure-controlled water into the surgical area, while another holds a suction to prevent waste from filling the cavity. The dome’s transparency and its access port for surgical tools allow surgeons to operate more easily.

“On top of the excitement that their prototype could be utilized in space exploration, it is very rewarding knowing their tool could immensely benefit trauma patients during surgery on the ground,” Hayden said.

The next step for the team is to test the device in conditions similar to those in outer space. Another member of the project’s team, University of Louisville surgery and biomedical engineering professor George Pantalos, collaborated with NASA to conduct tests in NASA’s C-9 aircraft, which travels in parabolic arcs to simulate zero-gravity conditions.

While in flight, the chamber will allow the team to test two different functions of the device: “The watertight chamber will contain hollow tubes filled with a blood substitute that simulate the network of blood vessels,” Hayden explained. “After cutting the tubes similar to how blood vessels would be cut during surgery, the suction system should replace the liquid with a clear substitute to increase visibility.”

In addition to removing the blood from the chamber, the tool also controls pressure to force the vessels to collapse and stop the bleeding all together. “Using a pig heart filled with an artificial fluid, [they] will monitor the pressure at which the bleeding is stopped,” Hayden said.

Gravity plays an important role in surgery, keeping body parts and blood in place during the procedure. This can present a real complication in outer space.

“We had to design an evaluation station to surround the AISS that would physically attach to the plane, catching any leaks just in case, because it is very hard to clean up a blood substitute while flying sideways,” Hayden said.

Hollywood has devised its own take on a solution to the gravity problem with this summer’s blockbuster Prometheus, which features a large automated surgical chamber. The AISS prototype is one of the first steps in astro-biomedical engineering to take this big-screen idea and make it a reality, which could help ensure the health of astronauts on their long journey.