Star Trek made real: Honeywell Bio-Analyzer headed for outer space

December 18, 2017 | Author: Ian D’Souza

There’s a familiar scene in countless science fiction movies: An injured character is brought into the starship’s sickbay where a robot scans the patient and instantly reports on their condition. Amazingly, that scene has come a step closer to becoming science fact, thanks to a new device developed by a Honeywell team in Ontario, Canada.

Currently, when astronauts require blood tests while in space, a vial (or more) of their blood needs to be drawn, stored in a bulky freezer, and then shipped back down to Earth on the next shuttle for analysis. This process could take months. If we’re going to start sending people to Mars, this simply won’t do. NASA will need a much smaller, smarter, autonomous “bio-lab” to serve the crew on these long missions into deep space.

Honeywell’s Bio-Analyzer could be the answer. This device can perform analysis on blood (and perhaps other body fluids in the future) in about one hour. It requires only a pin-prick drop of blood from a fingertip, instead of several CCs drawn by needle from an astronaut’s arm. The Bio-Analyzer produces the results with no need to freeze and store blood samples (reducing space and energy requirements onboard the space station). This will not only enable accelerated medical studies of humans in the space environment for long time periods, but the autonomy and compactness of the Bio-Analyzer will be critical on long, interplanetary voyages where the distances do not allow immediate communication with a doctor on Earth.

The Bio-Analyzer has two main modules. One module uses microfluidic technology developed by an academic start-up from Montreal, Canada, and sensitive optical detection designed by our engineering team, to determine the blood concentration of particular blood protein “markers” used in medical diagnosis. Ten different protein biomarkers are measured, with results delivered within an hour. The second module is a smart, lensless optical microscope, developed by a Halifax, Canada-based startup, which can identify and count blood cell types — white, red, platelets, etc. — for quick assays of the astronaut’s health. This module uses sophisticated pattern recognition techniques to perform this cellular labelling.

The Canadian Space Agency has chosen the Bio-Analyzer for deployment to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018, where Canadian astronaut Dr. David St. Jacques will demonstrate the blood analysis performance of the device.

Since the beginning of the space program in the early 1960s, technical advances and spinoffs from missions have benefitted humanity — computers, Earth remote sensing, GPS, global satellite communications, weather prediction, and search and rescue being some high-visibility examples. The Bio-Analyzer is just one more. For example, it can be used in remote geographic locations, or even in rural areas, where doctors often do not have easy access to medical laboratories. For people in those areas, the portability and immediacy of the device can be reassuring, and their doctors can rapidly provide relevant diagnoses for their patients.

Bio Analyzer

The Bio-Analyzer also has promising applications for emergency medicine in military use and in disaster relief or rescue scenarios. At some point, every doctor’s office could have a desktop Bio-Analyzer, so that a patient’s blood work could be performed quickly. It is even conceivable that someday, people might buy consumer versions off the shelf, just as they can buy blood pressure and diabetes test kits today.

Because the device is capable of accepting many types of fluids, future applications could include urine, saliva or water-quality testing. Other nonbiological fluids, such as oils and lubricants used in manufacturing or engines, might also be candidates for analysis. The device’s utility is limited only by our imagination.

I was excited to be part of the team that made this device possible, but the driving force behind it is an entire engineering team: led by project engineer, Herb Goettmann; technical lead, Jeff Cain; optical lead, Alan Scott; and program manager, Andrew Csizmar. They have produced a technology that could make a difference in both space and right here on Earth.

IanDSouza

Ian D’Souza, Ph.D.

Staff Scientist R&D – Missions, Instruments, and Payloads Honeywell Aerospace

Ian D'Souza joined Honeywell as Staff Scientist as part of the 2016 acquisition of Canadian satellite missions and systems company, COM DEV International. He has spent 15 years in space engineering hardware design, 10 years in microsatellite mission development, and has been key in initiating a number of microsatellite programs - one of which was spun off into a commercial, maritime surveillance data service. He holds a number of patents, is Adjunct Professor of Physics, University of Guelph, and sits on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Association of Physicists.

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