Space–more than just than the final frontier, it could end up being the next frontier in the field of medicine.

This was, in part, the theme of the Friday morning panel at the 2015 Idea Festival in Louisville, Kentucky called Next Gen … SPACE.

Panelists included:

  • Julia Aebersold, manager of the Micro/Nano Technology Center (MNTC) clean room at the University of Louisville
  • Jay Gallentine, space historian
  • Michelle Lucas, non-profit Higher Orbits founder and formerly of the Johnson Space Center
  • Twyman Clements, president and CEO of Space Tango
  • Kris Kimel, president and a founder of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation who moderated

The five-dollar word here is exomedicine. Exomedicine refers to the research and development of medical solutions in the microgravity environment of space for applications on Earth, Kimel said.

He said that one major revelation from space travel is that humans know relatively little about living systems and disease processes outside of Earth. But the thing is, microgravity presents a great potential to uncover insights into better ways to treat and prevent disease.

What they do know is that in space, things are different.

“When you go to space, when you leave the gravity realm, all biological, physical systems are scrambled. When that scrambling occurs, what we’re trying to understand is what are the implications of that…. Will that scrambling, in some cases, open up new doors to understanding these diseases that could lead to different kinds of interventions and treatments?” Kimel said.

For example, one 2013 experiment in conjunction with Tufts University and Space Tango involved sending planarian flatworms into space for six weeks to test the regenerative abilities of the worms, which on Earth are able to regenerate if cut into pieces.

The experiment found that in space, after the worms were cut into tails, heads, and mid sections, they ran into an instance where a mid section grew two heads, and its offspring also had two heads. It’s extremely rare and almost never seen on Earth. They want to find out why that happened.

Why this could matter is that better understanding regenerative medicine could help on Earth with injuries like those to the spinal cord, or with degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. In space, it could be used to develop new technologies with regenerative properties, like equipment that could keep running while repairing itself.

They also teamed with the University of Rome and Moorehead University and have done experiments relating to glioblastoma cells, which are found in malignant brain tumors, and how they restructure themselves in space. It’s early in research, but Kimel said they saw changes in the cells that will prompt them to do more research.

There are still a few barriers exomedicine has to cross in order to progress.

For one, it’s still expensive to get experiments into space. Granted, the cost has come down over the years, but finances still present a challenge, Lucas said told TechRepublic.

There’s also the ironic-sounding factor that there’s limited space in space. The International Space Station is about the size of a football field, and that means that there are only so many experiments it can house.

That could change with the addition of other space stations, Lucas said, that could accommodate scenarios like drug-maker Merck sending up a handful of scientists for a few months to work.

Another issue is safety, Gallentine said. He referenced a welding experiment by the Soviets as one point that was significantly complicated by the fact that it was being undertaken in space.

And beyond the development of new treatments or approaches to treating and preventing sickness, the burgeoning of exomedicine could also have implications for a newer generation of scientists, researchers, and doctors who may consider not just studying medicine, but studying space medicine.

Lucas said that there’s always been some thought that perhaps a significant medical breakthrough could come from space, but access to space has been limiting and that has hampered innovation.

“One of the keys to innovation is you have to be able to fail fast and cheap,” Kimel said.

Gallentine also said it’s taken a long time for people to get more comfortable working with microgravity.

“It’s been a recent convention that now that we’ve figured out how people can exist in this environment and figured out what it does to people, and what we need to do to counteract that, now we can move forward with the advantages of this environment,” he said.

The panel also covered a variety of space-related topics including the recent discovery of evidence there may be water on Mars, the implications of finding organic or microbial life on the planet, and even the future of STEM jobs in space.

“I think that everybody needs to consider the idea that a revolution could be coming from a medicine perspective,” Lucas said.

Update on March 15, 2018: Read the TechRepublic cover story about exomedicine written by Hope Reese, “Exomedicine arrives: How labs in space could pave the way for healthcare breakthroughs on Earth.”

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