Alumni engineering healthcare solutions for space

Posted: May 7, 2020

Mechanical and aerospace engineering alumnus, Dr. George Pantalos, is involved with three NASA-sponsored, medically-related projects at the University of Louisville.


Pantalos (far left) and team
The projects include evaluating the reconstitution of preserved red blood cells, evaluating an automated surgical fluid management system with a multi-function surgical device and developing aspects of surgical capabilities for space missions. 

The projects will be evaluated in micro gravity, achieved during parabolic and suborbital space flights. The efforts are a part of “developing advanced capabilities for exploration space flight,” said Pantalos.

The team involved with the research includes faculty and students from all levels, ranging from undergraduate, to graduate and medical school. The opportunity to work on a project sponsored by NASA has been a valuable experience for both students and faculty researchers. 

The work being done is surrounded by the context of prolonged space explorations, such as the Artemis project. Last summer, NASA announced the Artemis project that will send astronauts to the moon’s surface for exploration and to observe and evaluate prolonged operation on the moon. Among many other goals, one objective is to use to project as a testing ground to eventually send exploration crews to Mars, and possibly beyond. 

“When you do that,” said Pantalos, “you have to have more advanced medical capabilities.” 

A Nov. 2019 parabolic flight campaign tested dehydrated red blood cells and the multifunction surgical device
Currently astronauts on the International Space Station can resolve health issues with the supplies that are on board, and with real-time communication with a flight surgeon in mission control. In a more serious emergency, an astronaut could be back on earth and in a hospital in a matter of hours. 

That option isn’t available on the moon. Astronauts are about 4 days away from return, and there is a one and a half second delay in radio transmissions. 

“For something like a case of appendicitis, you may not be able to send a crew member from the moon back to earth, and certainly not when you’re halfway to mars,” Pantalos said. 

The research being done by Pantalos and his team focuses on providing space exploration crews with medical solutions that would keep them safe on extended journeys. 

The ability to store blood and reconstitute the preserved red blood cells would give astronauts access to an easily stored supply if transfusion therapy is needed. 

“We’ll be looking at rehydrating larger volumes of red blood cells, and continue evaluating their function once they rehydrate,” Pantalos said. The team will study if the reconstituted cells behave physiologically correct by transporting oxygen to tissue. 

The surgical fluid management system is currently being prepared for its evaluation on board a suborbital spaceflight, and the multi-function surgical device will fly with it. The team will evaluate three surgical functions of the device: suction, irrigation, and illumination. Two other functions that will not be tested are visualization and cautery, which are in the early stages of development. 

A Nov. 2019 parabolic flight campaign tested dehydrated red blood cells and the multifunction surgical device

While these projects could offer life-saving medical resources on a trip to Mars, they could also revolutionize medical practice here on earth. The multi-function surgical device could be found helpful in many earth-based surgeries, because it avoids the need to exchange instruments.

“Transfer of instruments takes time, and it may deflect the focus of the surgeon and the assistant from what’s going on. Hopefully it will make earth-based surgeries go more quickly, and more accurately,” said Pantalos. 

Preserving red blood cells is also a concept that could be applied to standard medical practice. The goal for preserving the red blood cells is that they will be good for five years, and be able to be stored at room temperature. 

“Right now, if you donate blood, after it’s been tested it’s stored in a refrigerator and is only good for 28 to 42 days,” said Pantalos. 

The preservation method being developed for space flight could allow blood banks and hospitals to safely store, transfer, and reconstitute large supplies. 

These efforts are at a crossroads between engineering and healthcare. Having worked in interdisciplinary research groups during his time at Ohio State, Dr. Pantalos said that this is an area where engineers can have a great impact.

“There are so many concepts, both scientifically and in practice that can be transferred from an engineering context to a healthcare context,” said Pantalos. “It takes an interdisciplinary effort.  Engineers understand problem solving, they understand design, they understand work flow and production.”

Category: Alumni