Undersea habitat becomes experimental hospital for remote medical care in NEEMO 7 project

Mount Hope 11 August 2004The days of doctors making house calls may seem like ancient history for most patients in North America, but in October, three astronauts and a Canadian doctor will test the latest concepts in long-distance house calls using a unique underwater laboratory. Delivering telerobotics-assisted medical procedures by sea and then applying them to space and other harsh environments is an important goal of the 10-day underwater NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 7 Mission. Cisco Systems Inc. will be providing the secure networking technologies to help enable this remote-care mission.


The ability to conduct long-distance health care such as telemonitoring and telerobotic surgery could be key to maintaining the wellness of future spacefarers and responding to medical emergencies on the International Space Station, the moon or Mars. Techniques will be tested on a simulated patient during the upcoming seventh mission of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project.

"The NEEMO 7 mission demonstrates the applicability of Internet Protocol (IP)-based technologies in delivering mission-critical services and applications, such as telemedicine and tele-surgery, which are helping to transform health care today", stated Jane Eisenberg, director of enterprise marketing for Cisco. "This project highlights how a secure, reliable and responsive network, such as a Medical-Grade Network empowered by Cisco technologies, can provide the backbone for the adoption of advanced medical procedures."

Advanced Internet technologies continue to play an increasingly important role in enabling the delivery of remote medical services. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), based on Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology from Cisco, have helped to enable the successful telerobotic surgeries of the NEEMO missions. MPLS brings new levels of intelligence to IP networks by combining the intelligence of routing with the performance of switching to dramatically simplify the deployment, management, scalability and flexibility of VPNs. Mission-critical applications, such as telemedicine, place new Quality of Service (QoS) and redundancy demands on IP networks. Highly secure, MPLS-based VPNs ensure performance over different classes of service, allow connection over different media, and meet the transport and bandwidth requirements, where lives hold in the balance.

Canadian Astronaut Dave Williams will lead a crew on the 10-day undersea mission, October 11-20, aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, located off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.

"Astronauts navigating between planets won't be able to turn around and come home when someone gets sick, and this undersea mission will help chart a course for long-distance healing", stated NEEMO Project Manager Bill Todd. "Aquarius, with its physical and psychological isolation on the floor of the Atlantic, will provide the real stresses needed to validate telemedicine in an extreme environment", he added.

NASA Astronauts Mike Barratt and Cady Coleman, as well as Dr. Craig McKinley of the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery (CMAS) at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, Ontario, will join Dave Williams in the experiment. Williams, Barratt, and McKinley are physicians. Air Force Lt. Col. Coleman holds a Ph.D. in engineering. Two other engineers, James Talacek and Ross Hein of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, will work side-by-side with the crew in Aquarius. Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Astronaut Bob Thirsk, NASA Astronaut Tracy Caldwell, and Dr. Tim Broderick of the University of Cincinnati will act as back-up crew.

According to Dr. Mehran Anvari, Director of the McMaster University Centre for Minimal Access Surgery at St. Joseph's Healthcare, NEEMO 7 will demonstrate and evaluate innovative technologies and procedures for remote surgery. Dr. Anvari, who will be based in Hamilton during the mission, will use two-way telecommunication links to guide the aquanauts through diagnosis and surgery on a mock patient inside Aquarius. Another simulation will involve virtual reality control technology to guide telerobotic surgery on the mock patient.

Similar in size to the International Space Station's living quarters, Aquarius is the world's only permanent underwater habitat and research laboratory. The 45-foot long, 13-foot diameter complex is three miles off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It rests about 62 feet beneath the surface.

A buoy on the surface provides power, life support and communications capabilities for Aquarius. A shore-based mission control for the Aquarius laboratory in Florida and a control room at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC), Houston, known as the Exploration Planning Operations Center, will monitor the crew's activities.

Aquarius is owned by NOAA, operated by University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and funded by NOAA's Undersea Research Programme. There have been six NEEMO missions to date. NEEMO 7 is a joint project involving McMaster's Centre for Minimal Access Surgery located at St. Joseph¿?s Healthcare Hamilton, the Canadian Space Agency, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Leslie Versweyveld

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