Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Although my views on the future may sound spacey to some, I am actually a pretty grounded person. I try to be in touch with everything around me and feel how things are changing. In my opinion, there is no other way to be thinking about the future. It’s about analysing the different scenarios that are unfolding or are about to unfold. It’s about understanding what is driving these changes and what it means for your business. That’s how I work with my clients as well: From inspiring and researching to designing better health experiences.
The future of health is out of this world and spacey.
When we talk about the future of health, you often hear this type of story:
In the future, sleep and mood will be optimised using sound stimulation. Our health will be improved through individualised diets with plants that we can grow ourselves. People will be able to detect the most subtle changes in their own health status. They will predict, prevent and alleviate diseases themselves by acting early enough. This will be possible through monitoring, diagnostic and therapeutic medical solutions that are easy to use, safe, robust and miniaturised.
For example, blood tests will be done within minutes by the patient on a single drop of blood, and automated eye exams will be performed independently. A computer algorithm will continuously track people’s health status based on various physiological parameters and alerts them when significant deviations from normal become apparent. Customised medicines are then tailor-made for the patient on-site. Kidney stones will be found early and treated quickly and painlessly using ultrasound. If a minor medical procedure is required, the non-medical caregiver can learn and practice beforehand using augmented reality tools and software simulations. They can be assisted by a medical professional that is thousands of kilometres away.
Sounds familiar? Heard this story about the future of health before? Well, this may sound futuristic, but it is not. These are the typical ailments that occur with astronauts, somewhere in space several thousands of kilometres away. And you know what? Technology is already providing them with these types of solutions today. Health in space is indeed showing us the future of health on Earth. In fact, this has been the case for many decades already. Did you know that, for example, the vitamins in baby milk were developed for space use? Well, that was years ago. Let’s see what is shaping above our heads now.
Pharma in space
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), tasked by NASA with overseeing the ISS US National Lab, has the extraordinary goal of encouraging companies and innovators here on Earth to take their research into the cosmos. Sound crazy? Not so much. At least three pharmaceutical giants are currently conducting research projects aboard the ISS National Lab: Merck, Eli Lilly and Novartis. Merck is considering expanding its drug discovery portfolio (particularly around protein crystal growth experiments), but they are also interested in drug efficacy in animal models. Eli Lilly uses the National Lab to understand drug stability and effectively create more stable compounds. The company is also actively trying to design a drug to counteract the loss of bone mineral density, a typical condition for astronauts who spend long periods in weightlessness. Novartis uses microgravity to make drugs for muscle atrophy - a condition that is accelerated considerably faster in space. But also, recent start-ups like Varda Industries, OrbitFab and Spacepharma are creating space factories that will allow the manufacturing of “new, life-saving pharmaceuticals” that can only be produced in zero gravity space. (Oh my…, I guess we almost need wholesalers in space as well)
The sky is not the limit for billionaires.
You’ve probably heard that one before, haven’t you? Because billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are indeed reaching for the stars. Quite literally, in fact. All three are racing into outer Space. Bezos’ vision with Blue Origin is millions of people living and working in Space. Elon Musk envisions humans as a multi-planet species that will escape earth’s suffocating pollution. The ‘celestial touristic’ ambitions by Virgin’s Richard Branson might even seem relatively modest against the first two. The fact is: we are leaving the earth anytime soon.
To Mars and back
Door to door, the first trip to Mars will be an approximately seven-month journey. A round trip could take astronauts about three years to complete. During that time, a crew must be completely self-sufficient, bringing the knowledge and the necessities to keep them healthy during the journey. Once astronauts lift off from the earth, the supplies onboard their spacecraft must contain food, water, and medicine. The spacecraft itself will be a means of transportation as well as a home, office, research laboratory, and even a hospital. While space for medical instruments is minimal onboard, it will be critical to anticipate potential health issues and design innovative solutions for our astronauts. There’s not even a guarantee that the first squad of astronauts will include a physician. Yet, astronaut health care must be a self-contained, closed system. The mission to Mars is shaping the future of health management.
It happened last week
Inspiration4 (stylised as Inspirati④n) was the world’s first all-civilian mission to orbit. The mission, operated by SpaceX, launched on 16 September 2021 and ended successfully on 18 September 2021 when the Spaceship splashed in the Atlantic Ocean. The primary purpose of this flight was to research the health of civilians on a space trip. So, once in orbit, the crew indeed performed carefully selected research experiments on human health and performance. It is expected that this will have enormous applications for human health on earth and during future spaceflights.
Additionally, SpaceX, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine and investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine collected environmental and biomedical data and biological samples from Inspiration4’s four crew members before, during, and after this historic spaceflight which will be stored in an open data repository. Now, if you want to grasp the massiveness of this research, then try to read and fully comprehend the scope of this following sentence: SpaceX is collaborating with investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine to perform a longitudinal, multi-omic analysis of the crew, including genome, epigenome, transcriptome, proteome, microbiome, metabolome, exosome, telomere, single-cell V(D)J immunophenotyping and epitope maps, and spatial transcriptome analysis. These samples and data will be added to a planned Biobank that will hold cryogenically frozen samples and data from the Inspiration4 mission. (Yep, this just happened a week ago)
Space tech for elderly
Ejenta is a company founded in 2012 by a former senior research scientist at NASA that used sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor astronauts in space. The company was initially focused on government-related work, including projects for NASA. However, in the last four years, Ejenta evolved into a digital health company. The reason? Because they felt that our (grand)parents deserve the same level of care NASA provides its astronauts. Today, Ejenta applies the same remote health monitoring as NASA's flight surgeons and biomedical engineers when astronauts go on spacewalks. This technology, licenced from NASA, integrates wearable and home sensors that gather data from patients with AI-driven virtual assistants or Conversational Intelligent Agents (CIA no less). Patients can also exchange messages with these assistants using a web-based chat function similar to those used to reach some customer service departments. (Yes, it can also be simple sometimes)
The hospital from outer space
Three years ago, when the NHS turned 70 years old, it celebrated its birthday with a new joint initiative between NHS England and the UK Space Agency. The aim was to find hi-tech solutions to the major health and care challenges facing the NHS in its 70th anniversary year. The challenges were focused around the management of long term conditions, the earlier diagnosis of cancer, the transformation of GP and other primary care services and the growing mental health needs. But this year, the joint venture planned to design a pioneering space-enabled hospital. The facility that will serve the people of Hampshire in southeast England is expected to be the first of a series of space-enabled hospitals in the UK. Space enabled? The hospital will indeed incorporate technologies pioneered on missions to the International Space Station. Potential applications include new diagnostic tools to accelerate diagnosis and treatment, logistics solutions for keeping track of medical supplies, and telemedicine devices that enable medics to care for patients remotely. It sure is a unique opportunity to design a new hospital facility to keep the population on earth healthy with the latest space technology.
The healthcare universe is infinite
The number of applications of space tech in healthcare on earth is endless. But for the fanboys and -girls, here's a tip of the iceberg of different health areas in scope.
- Understanding heart failure and how our arteries age on earth, by examining space-related changes in astronauts' blood vessels.
- Providing near-real-time test results from blood, urine, or saliva samples via a videogame-console-like device called Bio-Analyzer.
- Measuring of heart rate and blood pressure data, with a wireless smart shirt, like Bio-Monitor, worn by the astronauts in Space
- Diagnosing small fractures in remote areas with a compact and low dose X-ray machine used during space travel.
- Meeting the nutritional, performance, and emotional needs of astronauts through food that could be grown in greenhouses of future colonies on Mars or other planets
- Guiding diagnoses for skin conditions in space without internet connection with VisualDX
- Diagnosing and treating breast cancer at once with the technology behind Canadian space robots
- Producing nutritious food from limited resources via space fermentation and probiotics
- Connecting socially with robots via cognitive, creative, and social tasks.
- Suspending bedridden persons in a tub to mimic floating astronauts. This avoids body pressure for bedridden patients
- Monitoring pre-term babies in neonatal care with a patch used for planetary exploration
- Treating women suffering from postpartum hemorrhage by using an anti-gravity suit with non-inflatable pressure garments
- Using bacteria or other microorganisms to treat diseases and care for astronauts.
- Designing heart pumps modelled after how fluid flows through rocket engines
- Performing robotic brain surgeries with greater safety and precision, using neuroArm, a technology first used for space robots.
- … and many many more …
For some, it might take light years for it to hit them. And that is ok. But I hope that with this newsletter, it already hits you now: The sky is not the limit. Not even the stars are the limit.
So why would you limit yourself when thinking about the near future of your business? Think beyond the possibilities of your own little planet. Look beyond the so-called boundaries of your reality and ask yourself: “What is already happening out there that we can use as well.” Because yes, a lot is happening outside of your world. It may sound spacey at first. But perhaps it is not that much out of this world in the end.
In my work with healthcare and non-healthcare clients, I help them discover that space around them.
- I bring inspirational talks with examples and tools that encourage a celestial voyage;
- I research beyond their own market to spot the drivers in the “outer space”.
- I bring managers on board to design the future of health experiences.