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World’s Worst Environments Intensify Innovation

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 6, 2012

A former astronaut who’s also a physician believes extreme and distant environments are "incredible test beds” for technologies that will advance medicine.

Scott Parazynski, MD, a veteran of five Space shuttle flights, is now chief medical officer for the Center for Polar Medical Operations, which supports the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program. Read about the doctor’s extraordinary adventures and observations in a FastCompany story by Neal Ungerleider.

Dr. Parazynski says he is drawn to remote and challenging environments, and Antarctica may have the worst the world has to offer. It’s almost completely dark for six months, the temperature hovers around minus 70 degrees F. and conditions make air traffic virtually impossible from February through October. Dr. Parazynski says it’s akin to being on Mars, or the back side of the moon, where every act requires forethought and errors can kill. He finds it a rewarding place to work and study.

"I think the drive toward Apollo and the things we got from the lunar program revolutionized medicine,” Dr. Parazynski told Fast Company. "The miniaturization of technologies, sensors, and microelectronics that are now ubiquitous in our intensive care units...the monitors you see... they’re all ‘space pedigree’.”

He says medicine practiced today in remote and harsh places will lead to advances in telemedicine and point of care diagnostic and therapeutic devices, as well as microelectronics, nanotechnology, genomics, and metabolomics. He thinks they will also advance "MacGyver medicine" named after the TV secret agent who had the skills and ingenuity to rescue almost anyone from almost anywhere, creating tools he needed from materials at hand. As one example, Dr. Parazynski describes how Dr. Jerri Nielsen Fitzgerald diagnosed her own breast cancer during the Austral Winter in 1999 when no plane could land anywhere near the Antarctic outpost. She was the only physician there. She performed her own biopsy, with the help of a resident welder who practiced by sticking needles in apples and yams. Chemotherapy drugs were delivered by a dangerous air drop. Her cancer went into remission, but returned in 2005 and she died in 2009.

Dr. Parazynski recommends breaking up any difficult task into manageable parts rather than trying to achieve the whole goal all at once. He says he applied that principle to mountain climbing, medicine, and his early ambition to become an astronaut. He has climbed mountains all over the world, and is the only person to have flown in space and reached the top of Mount Everest.

Alexander Kumar, a physician and researcher at Concordia, a jointly sponsored French-Italian research station in Antarctica, is conducting scientific experiments for the European Space Agency’s human spaceflight program. His studies include examinations of sleep patterns, dreams and nightmares and behavioral and cognitive changes induced by isolation and perpetual darkness. Read his New York Times blog.

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