NASA Jet Propulsion Lab software links paediatric doctors with new research

Pasadena 29 September 2004Conjoined twins from Guatemala and the Philippines were recently separated after marathon surgeries in the United States, since their small communities lacked the quality medical care for the delicate procedure. Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, are working with doctors on a computer system that might eventually allow such high-tech surgeries to be performed in a remote country using a virtual paediatric intensive care unit.


JPL computer engineers created software that will connect information from various hospitals all over the world into one virtual intensive care unit. The system would link doctors who need detailed and specific information with researchers willing to share their data about paediatric medicine. For example, if a paediatrician in North Carolina were to want information about the most advanced treatment for a child with bone cancer, he could search the database and find the latest medical studies conducted by researchers all over the country.

The software, called Object Oriented Data Technology Software, was modelled after the Planetary Data System, a large software network that helps space scientists translate terminology used in local databases into standard language. Similar software is used to support the Mars Exploration Rovers, currently exploring the martian environment.

"The problem has been that information has been generated for local use, and now scientists are discovering the value of sharing research within their various communities", stated Dan Crichton, JPL senior computer scientist. "This has been true in planetary science and biomedicine and, now, in paediatric medicine."

With the extended databases, paediatricians can also record patient information directly from bedside monitors regardless of their location. The computer system is also capable of storing the information so researchers can use it for clinical trials and helping educate other doctors dealing with similar patients.

Right now, the virtual paediatric intensive care unit is being developed and tested at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. Next year the system will be extended to Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Baltimore, and Cornell University Medical Center, New York.

"The goal of the virtual paediatric intensive care unit is to enable us to practise in one critical care unit where we will all have the latest information available to care for critically ill children", stated Dr. Randall Wetzel, director of critical care medicine at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. "The fast paced, compelling urgency and the overwhelming diversity of diseases seen in children around the world, makes communication among caregivers life-saving and essential, but at the same time difficult."

The virtual paediatric intensive care unit is ideal for hospitals without advanced intensive care units. In the next few years, engineers hope to install networked cameras, allowing doctors to check on their patients in remote areas and assist their colleagues working in isolated centres. "It is extremely rewarding to see this NASA funded technology solving a problem of national importance", stated Dr. Ken Wolfenbarger, manager of JPL's Innovative Technology Transfer Partnerships Office. "As part of its mission, JPL welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with outside companies to develop and transfer dual-use technology through NASA's Innovative Partnerships Programme."

There are about 275 paediatric intensive care units around the country. Every year about 50.000 infants and children who need constant care are admitted into these centres. For more information you can visit the Virtual Paediatric Intensive Care Unit Web site.

Leslie Versweyveld

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