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 care. 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 professors of chemistry recognized in the field of health technologies, namely UdeM professors Jean-François Masson, expert in optical biosensors for the detection of diseases , and Joelle Pelletier, a specialist in protein engineering and molecular interactions, as well as Laval University professor Denis Boudreau, a specialist in nanomaterials and optical instrumentation.

The Quebec team of chemists was selected thanks to its technology called SPRINT, which is made up of smart surface plasmon resonance nanosensors. “In more layman’s terms, we’re going to design a miniature biomedical analysis lab whose main component, for detecting 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 necessary for the analysis, this miniaturized laboratory will be stored in a container the size of a shoebox!”

Autonomous space missions

The space missions of the next decades will present much more complex challenges than those of the missions aboard the International Space Station, which is only 400 km from the Earth: “The cockpit of the rockets is not the most spacious . The next missions will take astronauts to distances from Earth never before achieved. They will therefore have to be autonomous for all that is essential to life. In the event of illness, it is not possible to set up a traditional medical analysis laboratory, even a small one. This is why the Canadian Space Agency has called on the inventiveness 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 detection test that we recently developed as part of research on 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 film of gold 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: “On the Laval University side, our colleague Denis Boudreau is working on microfluidic cartridges containing the reagent, which will be brought into contact with a single drop of blood and whose pumping will be passive, that is to say by capillarity. Capillarity is an interaction phenomenon that occurs at the interfaces of a liquid and a surface thanks to surface tension forces. For example, it is this phenomenon that occurs when the ink is sucked by a blotting paper.

Several cartridges, which will be about the size of a postage stamp, will be designed to test for 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. sanitized environment of a space flight.

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

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

Jean-Francois Masson

Credit: Amélie Philibert

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

The planet Mars is several months away by space shuttle. Hence the importance for astronauts to be ready 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 where astronauts will work without the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, which protects humans from cosmic radiation. For the first time in the history of humanity, astronauts will be exposed to higher doses of solar and cosmic radiation for extended periods,” warns Jean-François Masson. Scientists suspect that these radiations can cause cancer in humans, but do not have sufficient data to confirm this. Documenting this question relating to distant spaceflight will be one of the missions of the lunar station.

SPRINT: an undeniable utility on Earth

The rapid and quantitative detection of inflammation markers from the SPRINT instrument will help screen for several 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 on-site diagnoses are synonymous with follow-ups also carried out on site, and not in large urban centers, which are often difficult to access for these communities. Just think of the Canadian Far North, where the distances to be covered are enormous.

In addition, 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 drop of blood remains captive in the cartridge, minimizing the potential for sample contamination and destruction. The long analysis times for obtaining the results also disappear, since these will be displayed in 15 minutes.

This technological solution will therefore be adapted to conditions where personnel and resources are limited, as well as to staff turnover. As designed, it will not require centralized data facilities or peripheral technology, but if necessary, software could be designed to communicate with centralized systems.

“We are therefore prepared to work in collaboration with remote communities in Canada to identify the applications of the technology that will be most useful to them and to design a series of cartridges that meet their needs,” says the team of Professors Masson, Pelletier and Boudeau.

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