NASA technology aimed at helping diabetes patients; Computer system generates simulated blood vessel network


NORFOLK, Va. -- Researchers from NASA Langley and Eastern Virginia Medical School are teaming up to develop an interactive computer system that could help improve blood flow in diabetic patients. Loss of blood flow can lead to nerve damage, gangrene and amputation.

The technology, which draws on NASA experiments for airplane pilots, lets patients see a simulated, three-dimensional network of their own blood vessels. Shown as red and blue images, the vessels move with the patient's own pulse and contract and expand depending how well blood is flowing.

"This is real-time data," said Aaron Vinik, director of research at the Strelitz Diabetes Institutes at EVMS. "It's not like taking data and analyzing it when the patient is long gone. It creates a whole new level of awareness."

The images could help doctors and patients see right away which drugs or exercises are working, Vinik said.

The images also may allow diagnosis of problems at an early stage and help patients monitor their condition at home, he said.

NASA eventually would like to sell smaller models for use in doctors' offices and at home, said Alan Pope, senior research scientist at NASA Langley.

While the prototype computer cost more than $15,000, Pope hopes the commercial units would sell for less than $1,000 apiece. NASA would license the technology to a commercial partner, he said.

About 16 million Americans have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. As many as 70 percent of diabetics suffer some form of nerve damage, often in their fingers and toes and more than 56,000 amputations are done each year in the United States.

The medical equipment uses technology from two NASA projects, Pope said. One uses sensors to monitor stress or boredom in pilots. The other, known as synthetic vision, gives pilots a map of the landscape around them.

Combined, the technology "picks up the results of what the body is doing and creates a model," Pope said. "It's a landscape of blood vessels."

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