Hospitals

NASA’s chief of space medicine looks around Akron for ‘disruptive innovation’ to help astronauts

NASA’s chief of space medicine visited biomedical engineering students at the University of Akron today, as well as doctors and researchers at Summa Health System in Akron, the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy in Rootstown and the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron to find disruptive medical innovations that can help take care of astronauts.

AKRON, Ohio — Dr. J.D. Polk is in Akron this week to see what he can find.

NASA’s chief of space medicine visited biomedical engineering students at the University of Akron, as well as doctors and researchers at Summa Health System in Akron, the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy in Rootstown and the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron.

“You never know where some of the disruptive innovation and technologies that may solve some of the problems you have could come from,” said the Dayton-area native who now works at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. “The three things that we’re concentrating on are innovation, collaboration and education.”

Polk said a former colleague, Dr. William Fallon, invited his team to Akron to take a look at its emerging medical technologies and materials.  “We look at folks that are doing collaboration and innovative work in medical sciences and biomedical sciences,” Polk said.

It’s not Polk’s first visit to Northeast Ohio. He was chief flight surgeon for Metro Life Flight, the emergency medical helicopter service of MetroHealth System in Cleveland, from 1997 to 2001, according to his profile at social-networking site LinkedIn. At MetroHealth, he worked with Fallon, then a staff trauma surgeon. Today, Fallon is Department Chair for Surgery at Summa’s Akron City Hospital.

Later, Polk spent a year as medical director of State Emergency Medical Services in Columbus. In 2002, he became chief of aerospace medicine for the U.S. Air Force Reserve, moving to NASA as chief of medical operations in 2004. He was chief of clinical services for less than a year prior to being appointed space medicine chief in January.

Fallon told the Akron Beacon Journal that Summa’s Institute for Minimally Invasive Therapeutics is interested in developing products and procedures that could be used in space. If products are invented in partnership with NASA, they could be developed locally and marketed with the help of the Austen BioInnovation Institute, Fallon said. And that could mean new companies and jobs.

Though Polk and fellow researchers are merely “planting seeds” for future collaborations during this trip, he offered an example of what collaborations with NASA look like.

“We were interested about six months ago in looking at the back of the eye of astronauts” to keep track of changes that might occur during long space flights, Polk said. The doctors needed a scope that could transmit retinal images to Earth.

NASA could have invented the scope itself, or given the requirement to a contractor to develop. Instead, the space agency looked for someone who already had invented such a scope.

Using search engine Google, a NASA contractor found a home video of Dr. Paul Filar, a Wisconsin optometrist, showing off a camera scope he used to diagnose retinal problems in nursing home patients. After some tweaking, NASA doctors are using the scope to keep track of retinal changes of astronauts (pdf) at the International Space Station.

“We’ve gotten beautiful images of the back of the retina of astronauts to make sure they’re doing well,” Polk said. “You think of the time and taxpayer money that was saved in doing that. Dr. Filar … can’t believe that his invention is on the space station right now.”

Of course, NASA also invents medical technologies that are adopted by doctors on Earth, Polk said. For instance, NASA invented a ventilator that automatically weans patients from its use. The space agency is researching osteoporosis because astronauts lose bone mass in space.

Like most research institutions, NASA wants to work with more consortiums like the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron. “We’re working diligently to do disruptive innovation in collaboration with folks. And the educational component is very important to us,” he said.

Still, NASA may intimidate most earthlings. “I sincerely doubt that the biomedical engineering students here at the University of Akron knew they had the opportunity to … invent hardware that might fly in space. People assume we’re the space program and we have all this cool stuff. They don’t want to bring their ideas forward out of fear of being rejected.

“It’s the opposite. NASA’s always interested at looking at what’s out there, especially if it will help us in an innovative way and cut our costs in a collaborative way,” Polk said. “You never know. Somebody could be working on something they think is going to help their small part of the world, but it ends up helping folks even in space.”