Space missions: a biomedical analysis laboratory in a shoebox

Space missions: a biomedical analysis laboratory in a shoebox

On May 25, the Canadian Space Agency and Impact Canada announced the 20 projects selected for the competition. Deep Space Healthcare Challenge, which aims to promote the development of new technologies in the field of health. These technologies are intended for astronauts on long-duration space missions, as well as remote communities in Canada.

The project presented by the University of Montreal and selected by the consortium brings together three renowned chemistry professors in the field of health technologies, namely UdeM professors Jean-François Masson, an expert in optical biosensors for the detection of diseases, and Joelle Pelletier, specialist professor in protein engineering and molecular interactions, as well as Laval University professor Denis Boudreau, specialist in nanomaterials and optical instrumentation.

The Quebec chemist team was selected because of its technology called SPRINT, which is made up of smart surface plasmon resonance nanosensors. “In simpler terms, we are going to design a miniature biomedical analysis laboratory whose main component, to detect biomarkers of disease in a drop of human blood, will be the size of a box of tissues,” explains Jean-Francois Masson. With all the equipment needed for analysis, this miniaturized laboratory will be stored in a container the size of a shoebox!”

autonomous space missions

The space missions of the coming decades will present much more complex challenges than those of the missions aboard the International Space Station, which is only 400 km from Earth: “The rocket cabin is not the most spacious. Upcoming missions will take astronauts to distances from Earth never before reached. Therefore, they will have to be autonomous for everything that is essential for life. In case of illness, it is not possible to set up a traditional medical analysis laboratory, no matter how small. That is why the Canadian Space Agency has called on the ingenuity of scientists across the country to find solutions,” says Jean-François Masson.

COVID-19 as a starting point

Microfluidic cartridge developed by Professor Denis Boudreau

Credit: ULaval

“The SPRINT technology is inspired by a COVID-19 screening test we recently developed as part of an investigation of infected food workers during the pandemic. The SPRINT device will combine two state-of-the-art technologies, surface plasmon resonance and passively pumped microfluidic cartridges.

“Surface plasmon resonance is an optical process that uses a thin gold film to detect biomarkers of inflammation, which are one or more proteins secreted into the blood and associated with disease. Depending on the biomarkers detected, the instrument will measure a specific color spectrum”, sums up Jean-François Masson.

He continues: “At Université Laval, our colleague Denis Boudreau is working on microfluidic cartridges containing the reagent, which will come into contact with a single drop of blood and whose pumping will be passive, that is, by capillarity. Capillarity is a phenomenon of interaction that occurs at the interfaces of a liquid and a surface thanks to the forces of surface tension, for example, it is this phenomenon that occurs when ink is sucked by a blotter.

Several cartridges, about the size of a postage stamp, will be designed to detect signs of various diseases, including cancer and infections, as well as several of the types of inflammatory diseases most likely to develop in the body. of a space flight.

The procedure will be simple and fast. If there is a diagnostic need, the astronaut must choose the appropriate cartridge for the disease to be detected, add the drop of blood to the cartridge, insert it into the SPRINT instrument, and activate the software. Total analysis time will be less than 15 minutes.

From the Lunar Space Station Gateway to Planet Mars: Danger of Cosmic Radiation

Jean Francois Masson

Credit: Amélie Philibert

The Lunar Space Station Gateway is the next great international manned space exploration mission, for which the Canadian Space Agency has invited scientists to imagine innovative medical devices. The Station will orbit the Moon and serve as a springboard for deep space exploration, the first planned stopover of which is the planet Mars, in the next twenty years.

The planet Mars is several months away on a space shuttle. Hence the importance of astronauts being prepared to live independently for a long period.

“It is essential for our team that our miniaturized SPRINT laboratory can detect cancer biomarkers, in a context in which astronauts will work without the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, which protects humans from cosmic radiation. For the first time in human history, astronauts will be exposed to higher doses of solar and cosmic radiation for prolonged periods”, warns Jean-François Masson. Scientists suspect that these radiations can cause cancer in humans, but they do not have enough data to confirm this. Documenting this question related to distant spaceflight will be one of the lunar station’s missions.

SPRINT: an undeniable utility on Earth

The SPRINT instrument’s rapid and quantitative detection of markers of inflammation will help detect various serious diseases. The absence of clinical laboratories in remote areas means that the patient or the blood sample must travel to an urban center depending on the situation. It can be long, expensive and complicated. Having an instrument at hand that facilitates the diagnosis of a disease makes it possible to choose the best treatment for patients.

Its use could revolutionize medical practice in remote regions, because rapid diagnoses in situ are synonymous with follow-ups also carried out in situ, and not in large urban centers, which are often difficult to access for these communities. Just think of the Far North of Canada, where the distances to be traveled are enormous.

Furthermore, commissioning the instrument will not require a sterile or aseptic environment or special training: a patient could use it independently. It even eliminates manual collection and injection steps. The blood drop remains captive in the cartridge, minimizing the chance of sample contamination and destruction. The long analysis times for obtaining the results also disappear, since these will be displayed in 15 minutes.

Therefore, this technological solution will adapt to conditions where staff and resources are limited, as well as staff turnover. As designed, it will not require centralized data facilities or edge technology, but if necessary, the software could be designed to communicate with centralized systems.

“Therefore, we are poised to work collaboratively with remote communities across Canada to identify the technology applications that will be most useful to them and design a series of cartridges that meet their needs,” say the team of Professors Masson, Pelletier and Boudeau.


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