Canadian Space Agency hosts challenge for new tech in astronaut healthcare

The Canadian Space Agency recently wrapped up it's Deep Space Healthcare Challenge, in which the winner got $500,000 in grant funding.

So we’re trying to send folks back to the Moon and potentially Mars. However, the longer people are out there, the longer they could potentially come down with something. Yes much like the fisherman and pioneers back in the day, even the most simple of conditions can become dangerous when you’re far away from home. So obviously technology will be needed to help prevent, diagnose and treat anything crew members could potentially come down with. To help spark some innovation, the Canadian Space Agency recently wrapped up it’s Deep Space Healthcare Challenge, in which the winner got $500,000 in grant funding. To learn more about the ideas brought forth during the contest, I spoke to Annie Martin, she’s the Health Beyond Portfolio Manager for the CSA.

Interview Transcript:

Annie Martin The deep space health care challenge that was first initiated to ask our innovators in Canada to develop, new, medical technologies for, diagnostic and detection of, for health care. And it was driven by the need to better understand what will be required for deep space mission. So, when we will, set up a settlement on the lunar surface for prolonged time, and when we’ll fly to Mars, the crew will need to be more autonomous in the way they manage their health. And mainly because of the challenge, like communication delays going from a couple of second on the moon to, 20 minutes one way on the surface of Mars. So that drives the need for a solution that will empower them to manage their health. And right now, just as a piece of information on the International Space Station, the crew has real time access to, flight surgeon on the ground and all the experts. So that’s why we need that paradigm shift. And innovation, you know, is moving fast. And we know that, you know, globally, but also in Canada, there are a lot of companies that are developing new approach to facilitate the work of healthcare practitioners. So, we decided to use a challenge price approach to simulate innovation and to have novel solution proposed to us. So, this challenge started about a bit less than two years ago, I would say, and we had more than 100 organizations who registered, proposed their concept. And then we had semifinalists that were asked to do a proof of concept. And from that list of 20 semifinalists, there were five finalists that were invited to do a demonstration of their, solution to our jury. And, we just announced, couple a couple of weeks ago, the grand winner and application and who won the big prize. So, these are all, all our, semifinalist, solution, were really designed to help diagnose or detect, health problem with a particular aspect of being applicable, here on Earth. So, the way we crafted our challenge that it needed to address immediate need on Earth and be applicable in a time frame of 5 to 10 years for space, we know that there is urgent need here, for a remote, remote healthcare, solutions, and the challenge are similar. If we think of northern Canada, where they don’t have access to expert, emergency evacuation or difficult. So, solution can help them address, just like it will support astronauts, in space.

Eric White So correct me if I’m wrong. You just called North Canada. Mars. Is that?

Annie Martin Well, I’m not saying they are Martian. Not at all. But there are lots of synergies between some of the challenges that they are ongoing. And, you know, when we invest in technologies, we are very mindful in terms of, you know, doing meaningful investment that can also benefit Canadian. And we specifically target those similarities in the challenges. And at the same time, you know, there’s a much bigger market on Earth. If you think of the number of astronauts for now. Yes, at some point we’ll democratize space and, more people will fly to space. But for now, since there’s a limited number of people flying into space, we’re conscious of the need for those companies to expand their markets here on Earth.

Eric White You mentioned the winners were MD applications for the Easy Resource Solution. Was that something that they had already invented prior to this challenge, using it in those scenarios that you had mentioned, or did they come up with this just for this challenge and now it’s being applied everywhere else?

Annie Martin It’s something that they already started to develop. So, the idea of the easy resource application, it’s to support, health care practitioners that, you know, in the moment of an emergency, need to focus on the patient for resuscitation. But at the same time, there’s so many things happening around they need to calculate the dose for the medication and all the process, the processes that they need to perform. So, their idea was to facilitate resuscitation for and health care providers. And so, they started to develop that. And when they saw the challenge they thought of, oh, it applies well for the challenge. So that, you know, it was kind of, a stimuli for them to invest more time and money to really develop that. So, they developed their application for terrestrial health care, and it is used globally. Now. They have, I think, more than 5000 users. So, so it, scaled up, quite rapidly. And the challenge, the health care challenge was an occasion for them to really get to it and get it done. And which was a good thing because, the grand prize was, $500,000 in grant funding.

Eric White Was that sort of the trend you saw with some of the other semifinalists that it was a particular technology that they already had, or where a lot of folks, you know, saying, okay, challenge accepted. Let’s try and create something specifically tailored for space.

Annie Martin I would say for the first stage, when we got more than 100 applicants, it was a mix of both. So, we had people that really wanted to solve a problem and let it go and do the challenge. But the semifinalist and it was solution that, you know, was already at a certain stage of maturity, not necessarily commercially available, but at least that the proof of concept was already done. And identify their market opportunity in order to, to make the to bring their technology, to market.

Eric White And let’s not leave out those who should get an honorable mention, which are those who are the semifinalists. I’m not going to make you go through the litany of them, but were there any, you know, 1 or 2 that had similar, technologies that, you know, didn’t win but still had something impressive to show you all?

Annie Martin Yes. And maybe if you allow me to maybe focus on the five, the finalists. So, in addition to, issued visas, by application. And there was an AI solution for tele robotic surgery, by the center for Surgical Invention and Innovation. They are building a solution that can do autonomous biopsy. And it’s all the idea to bring some, diagnostic capabilities to areas where experts are not located, necessarily. And, we know, Canada’s expertise in space robotics and their solutions is also, you know, derived from the work that has been done for and the Canadarm. So, it’s really interesting to see the application of some of those space technologies for, for health care. There was also another company called Indigenous Tech AI, for dermatology. So, the idea with a nap, you know, and to take a picture and, with artificial intelligence, you know, it helps identify, if the skin condition requires, a specialized dermatologist to, look at it. So, there’s that telemedicine connection as well. So, the expert who is located remotely can look at it. And, you know, we can say that this is also an important application, when there’s no dermatologist that travel northern of Canada or number of indigenous community, but with a technology that you can provide timely diagnosis and ensure that, you know, it can get treated, more rapidly. Because just to make a parallel, you know, if any one of us living in an urban center, you know, we see, something on our skin, you know, we could say, it’s nothing. Let’s just wait. But, you know, we could more easily access an expert if we need to. If you’re remotely, you know, you know, it’s something that may tend to drag more because the access to a physician is so rare. So that’s why such a solution can really help the health care practitioner there, whether a nurse or a physician, any specialist. So, so these are interesting. And then there was another one looking at virtual reality, Sonic with their sievert cardiac to help a remote expert support diagnosis and monitoring of cardiovascular disease. So, the expert wearing, the virtual reality goggle or helmet, you know? Can see the same thing as the person who’s okay with the local. And then better assist the person, you know, because expertise and training are a concern. You know, when we think of rural, remote site here on Earth. Mainly because, you know, there’s, you know, there’s no experts first that are, you know, there on the permanent basis and you know that the population is there’s less population. So, a physician who’s there, maybe they’re on rotation or may not see specific spatial cases frequently. So, when something new come up, it’s not necessarily easy to go back and to you when you learn those skills, you know, years ago. So, with virtual reality, it’s possible to easily access an expert and get, you know, proper health management and support the patient. That’s what health care practitioners want to do in rural and remote communities, to be able to support the patient without necessarily having an emergency evacuation, because this is something that we often see. If there’s a doubt in the health care practitioner’s mind about the health care condition, you don’t want to risk waiting. And it kind of degenerate. So, then the person would fly. But there’s lots of consequences in flying. Someone in an urban center does the isolation from the family being alone, being far away. So, there’s, you know, that philosophy of, you know, aging at home and that’s good for urban center or remote center, but how to ensure care is appropriately, provided locally and technology can support that. And the last and the last final is, was neuroscientists. So, they are building a solution to manage neuro vestibular and sensory motor, disruption. So, you know, when you feel imbalance or when there are any, any type of issue that comes from the inner ear. And when we think of space in microgravity, the neuro vestibular system is impacted because, there’s rapidly there’s the liquid in the ear and there is hair. When the liquid move, it sends signal to the brain to give information to the brain. How the head is positioned in space, in, in the environment, I would say. And in space, the liquid, you know, there’s no gravity. So, then the brain cannot take the signal from the ear. So, when astronauts come back on Earth, then suddenly the brain is receiving those, those inputs from the neural vestibular system, and it caused them to feel, to, to lose balance. And that’s why we see astronaut, you know, unable to walk straight when they come back on Earth because, you know, all these new signals that come to their brain, you know, kind of oversee. It’s all there’s overstimulation. So, the neural vest and there are also disease or health problem on Earth that also affect the equilibrium. So, this type of solution can help. Correct. And it was interesting because one of my colleagues wore the device during their, demonstration. And it was interesting the, the stimulation and how, how it works. So all different finalists, all different technologies, but all addressing specific health problems that are relevant for both space and the and also for.

Eric White On those demonstrations that you just mentioned. You know, those are all impressive, pieces of technology to come up with, you know, space or using them in space or on Earth. What went into the decision to award MD applications the top prize? I imagine it was a tough decision.

Annie Martin I can tell you it was really tough decision. And, and so the jury have that tough, tough choice to make from stage one. So, looking at the 100 more and plus application and then, and then define the, the winner, it was it was really hard. But, you know, they were looking at what the technology can do in terms of improving access to health care. How is it solving the problem of, remote communities, but also looking at how innovative is this, you know, what’s the innovation behind, what’s the market? You know, so to answer that, it’s also solving a problem here on Earth, this usability as well. How is it design, how is it used. So as much as, you know, practical aspect of how to use the technology, how could it really deliver on the benefit for both space and, remote, communities? And they were good debate. I can tell you I was part of the I wasn’t I was not a jury member. But I can tell you that there were lots of, interesting debate because all the tech, you know, and even when we were getting to the final. So, with the 20 semifinalists, you know, we discovered, great technologies, here in Canada.

Eric White Final question here. And I feel free to brush me off if this doesn’t fall under your expertise. But in your research, what are some of the most common diagnoses given to astronauts who are, you know, up their long term on the International Space Station or taking long trips to, you know, the moon? Did you find anything in your research for, what is the most common illness or medical condition that is diagnosed up in the space realm?

Annie Martin So, when we think of the International Space Station, you know, we send crew members that are very healthy. So, the screening is really, intense to make sure that the astronaut when they are selected, don’t present risk for a condition, that could lead to, important problem in space. So, they have, strict, selection criteria for selecting astronaut. And then when they are selected for a mission, they are also qualified for flight in terms of their health condition, to ensure that there’s no problem. I’ll give you an example. If they had a minor surgery. You know, pending on where it is, this could be a problem for future flight mission. So that’s why they need to be, qualified so that when they fly, they are, very healthy. So, what we are observing in terms of health condition, it’s very minor. On the space station, because of, we managed your risk alert, prior to spaceflight. But the effect of microgravity, you know, make them nauseous when they are in space can make headache, because when you find space that there’s no gravity. So, the blood tends to, accumulate more, and we say they have a puffy face. So, so this this is, so, you know, they would take the same medication as we would take, here on there because, you know, it’s based on, evidence-based medicine here on Earth, how we treat the astronaut in space. We also know that they lose bone, bone mass, when they’re in space. So, there’s always a risk for, renal stone. They’ve not been big case, but we’re very careful about that. They were some mild symptoms of cold. You know, because, you know, there’s always the risk of a late latent virus, you know, that maybe doesn’t manifest when you’re, you know, in the present time, but then would emerge, at a later time. So that’s something that we’re very careful. But again, you know, it would be, it’s pretty minor. In the first era of human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit. There were some, condition of tooth problem. And it’s also related to the bone, the bone loss, as well. So, nothing major. But it’s because of that risk. But when we think of Mars mission, a three-year mission with important dose of radiation, and we know radiation can be very harmful. So, there’s a new there’s a notion of risk that just open in front of us. And we need, to be prepared, for that. So, you know, we are preparing for risk of infection, a potential cardiac problem. It’s a complex system. There’s always risk of, you know, if there’s a system malfunction and there’s an electrocution or something like that. You know, there will be potentially DNA mutation on the Mars mission. But, but, you know, would we start, chemo in space and there’s lots of questions about the risks. So here are the risks. And which one do we choose to? To care for. And, you know, a space vehicle is limited in space or right now. So, you can see that I’m going in every direction. But I mean, there’s not a specific list. You know, with NASA, there has been the publication of a list of 100 and something condition that could happen in space. If there’s an international effort in terms of quantifying the risk and identifying, okay, considering mass volume, what will we bring? For that? So, so, you know, the cardiac, issue that we need to monitor, any infection that could, that could emerge because of, you know, all the surface and, you know, because everything floats in space. So, it’s not like if it’s settled, like here on Earth, you know, so it can, it can, you know, go into respiratory system and all that. So, getting ready for every type of infection, a urinary tract infection is something as well. And then an interesting question in the community, is also the, you know, the risk of appendicitis because that you have no sign and there’s no genetic, you know, you can have it and that it could be problematic. So, this is not answering your question. There’s one thing we’re looking at is how can we monitor so that we can have kind of early warning or early prediction so that we can see who is going somewhere? We see that there’s a, the change there’s a trend in some of the health parameters. How can we act before a medical condition becomes to a point that we’re unable to treat it? So, and then maybe one condition that is important that we should not forget. I only talked about physical health, but there’s also all the mental health, a three-year mission to Mars being away from home. You know, there will need to be, you know, strategies to cope with, with ensuring that they are mentally, healthy in space.

Eric White Yeah. The list of risks is long. It would definitely be a bad time to develop a food allergy. So, on that note, you know, since there are so many different risks that you’re trying to counteract and account for before they get off the ground, what is the future plans? Are you going to be running more challenges like this, looking at different aspects of diagnostics or, medical preparation that can, like you said, get you as ready as someone can for a three-year trip off of the Earth.

Annie Martin So the challenge approach that we use, is, is one of the many ways that Canada is, asking innovators to come up with new ideas. So, we are currently looking at what could be the potential, challenges. But there are also other means of, we have the Space Technology Development program in Canada to fund Canadian organization, to do, research and development. You know, we some we sometimes have directed, contracts, you know, a year and a half ago, we launched a connected care medical module contract where we asked innovators to create a medical system, and shipping containers. So, there’s different way, but I can really speak for that. The, the benefit of, running a challenge in terms of the incentive to innovators and, and the, the outcomes that we take. So, I hope that the Canadian Space Agency will, we’ll have more challenge. And there’s one that just closed on a water on the moon. There was one that we announced the winner for a food production in space. So, Canada has an interesting model for running challenge, so looking forward to seeing more of that.

Eric White Annie Martin is health Beyond portfolio manager for the Canadian Space Agency.

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