How space exploration is advancing remote medicine


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As billionaires race to the stars, many have been quick to throw shade on the rich for spending money on joyrides to space instead of solving problems on Earth. But a Canadian astronaut is reminding people that space exploration has the power to contribute to life-changing advances on our planet.

“You can argue whether or not we need to go to Mars. I think that’s not the point. We will go to Mars because it’s there and we want to explore,” said Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques. 

“But going to Mars is going to require figuring out recycling. We’re going to become masters at air, water and recycling, at food production. That’s going to help us on Earth.”

In an interview with CBC News, the astronaut and family physician said that while essentials such as health care, education, employment and security should always take priority, he believes a fraction of our resources must also be devoted to dreaming big — through the arts, exploration and science.

“That is how we progress,” he said. 

“If we just do what’s needed, we don’t progress. We don’t change. The only way we move forward is by doing a little bit of crazy, blue-sky dreaming.”

In a photo from 2019, taken aboard the International Space Station, astronaut David Saint-Jacques tries out the Bio-Monitor for the first time in space. The Canadian technology is a smart shirt system designed to measure and record vital signs. (Canadian Space Agency/NASA)

In his own career, Saint-Jacques’s dreams have often focused on trying to bring medicine to remote communities. Before joining the Canadian Space Program in 2009, he was a family doctor in the fly-in Inuit community of Puvirnituq, Nunavik, in northern Quebec.

A recent article published in Nature Medicine, co-authored by Saint-Jacques, highlights the ways that space-based technologies are advancing telemedicine and could be used to help prevent and monitor future pandemics.

One of the key examples noted in the paper is the Bio-Monitor, wearable technology that Saint-Jacques tried out during his 204-day mission aboard the International Space Station from 2018 to 2019.

During his mission, the smart shirt continuously monitored Saint-Jacques’s heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, physical activity and blood oxygen levels.

This infographic, produced by the Canadian Space Agency, explains how the Bio-Monitor works. Saint-Jacques said such innovations have practical applications on Earth, such as helping health-care teams monitor patients in remote communities. (Canadian Space Agency)

While it’s still being developed for clinical settings, the idea is that instead of hooking up a patient to a tangle of tubes and cables, the Bio-Monitor could one day monitor a patient non-intrusively and remotely, around the clock. 

“I can envisage a future where a lot of people are wearing that on Earth,” Saint-Jacques said. 

He said that kind of technology could make a big difference in places like an isolated village on…

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