Tuesday, February 21, 2012

NASA's Biocapsule Breakthrough

NASA has developed a new technology called a “biocapsule”, designed to prevent the damage from the radiation exposure that occurs when astronauts spend extended periods of time in space. The biocapsule is designed so that it continually assesses certain conditions (like an elevated radiation level) and then treats the condition. What is exciting, for those of us who stick to living on terra firma, is that these biocapsules hold a lot of promise for treating chronic illnesses.

So how does it work and what other kinds of illnesses might we eventually treat with biocapsules?

A biocapsule is a spherical structure made of carbon nanotubes with a membrane that detects certain conditions. It is implanted under the skin and acts to continually monitor the body for a particular problem or set of conditions. Upon detecting those conditions, the biocapsule releases medicine contained inside the carbon nanotube sphere to treat the problem.

In its current design, cells which produce an anti-radiation medicine are placed inside the biocapsule and they release a hormone called G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) when the biocapsule (inside the astronaut) receives a blast of radiation from the sun. This hormone is used here on Earth to treat cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy to avoid radiation poisoning. In the biocapsule scenario, it helps to protect the astronaut from getting radiation poisoning in space, where the Earth’s magnetic field is not present to protect them from solar radiation. The benefit of this system is that it is automatic, works instantly, and will perform even when the astronaut is sleeping. The cells inside the biocapsule remain isolated from the body, but are still able to receive nutrients from surrounding cells, so they can stay alive and active without risk of your immune system trying to fight them off.

Further developed, biocapsules could contain or produce medicines for a number of chronic illnesses and conditions. Researchers are working to develop treatments for patients with diabetes by putting insulin creating cells inside a biocapsule. The hope is that these capsules could automatically (by detecting blood sugar levels) produce insulin directly in diabetic people (whose pancreases cannot make it anymore), eliminating external injections almost entirely. Another potential application involves placing epinephrine inside a biocapsule to treat dangerous anaphylactic allergic reaction, which could save the lives of people with severe allergies.

What is so exciting is that it appears possible that biocapsules could contain almost any medicine, potentially treating any number of chronic illnesses. Furthermore, since they are automatically activated when needed, they could treat a problem before we may even be consciously aware of it (e.g. a blood sugar spike or an early allergic reaction).

An important aspect of the biocapsule is that they will work when you need them and not before. Because there is no way for your body to break down a biocapsule, they can remain in the body indefinitely, safely ready to kick into action whenever they are needed. In case you are worried, biocapsules can be easily removed because they are simply implanted under the skin allowing easy access for removal at any time.

As with any new technology, only time will tell about how well it will work under real world conditions. But it does seem like a promising new idea that has significant potential to improve the health of patients facing chronic and potentially life threatening conditions.

For more information, you can watch the video of the interview with the inventor of the biocapsule (Dr. David Loftus). You can also read more about this on Gizmodo.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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