If we talk about humans breathing in space, the topic of asthma might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But lung conditions are a key area where space research could deliver a breakthrough, both for astronauts and back on Earth.
Space medicine has the potential to lead to innovative treatments for neurological conditions, visual and other sensory problems, cancer and cardiovascular and lung conditions.
The moon and other places in space are dusty environments high in silica – which can cause a severe and deadly condition called silicosis. People in space may breathe in dust that lands on their suits or equipment. It’s important to figure out how to prevent exposure, and these lessons can be applied to people exposed to nasty particles on Earth.
Most people will be familiar with the 2020 Australian bushfires up the eastern coasts of Australia, which caused a visible smog and increased asthma admissions to hospital by 30 per cent. If we learn how to protect our people in space in a microgravity environment, we can take those lessons about particle deposition throughout the lung and apply them to Earth.
On the other side of the coin, some of our medication is gravity dependent – like inhalers for asthma. As more people travel to space, such as with a rise in space tourism, we are going to need these medications to work beyond our atmosphere. And for those on Earth, incorrect application of gravity dependent medications is a major problem, so making it easier to administer these treatments could save lives.
It is not easy – or cheap – to conduct sensitive biological research in space. With the known challenges, such as thermal control and radiation exposure, researchers are investigating ways to safely increase efficiency and control of microgravity experiment platforms. This is something that Swinburne scientists are looking to explore in Victoria.
In Australia, we have world-leading experts working across biomedicine research. We are also strong in our advanced manufacturing capabilities. Combining our expertise in advanced manufacturing, surfaces and coatings, sensor technology and computing with experience gained from running experiments on the International Space Station, we could create Victoria’s very own microplatform on which biomedical experiments could be conducted.
The Australian government, and many others around the globe, are investing in space life sciences technology development in the coming decades. We know that government funding is just the first step, but it will bring with it private investment. A study from NASA shows that for every dollar they spent, their investment attracted over three further dollars in private research and development.