Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 26

Submission from Dr Alyson Calder[39]



  2.  The United Kingdom is currently one of few countries with growing expertise in the field of Space Medicine. Interest in this branch of modern medicine has never been so great. I believe that the United Kingdom is well placed to be a leader in this field. However, if government does not recognise that the UK is at a pivotal point for the future of this branch of research, we are at risk of losing current expertise and its many benefits for good. It would be a great pity if this were to happen, simply due to short-sightedness.


  4.  During the past decade, I have gained expertise in the field of Space Medicine research. I have done so through placements at international Space institutes, including the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (Russia), NASA Johnson Space Center (Texas), NASA Kennedy Space Center (Florida), Vanderbilt Center for Space Physiology and Medicine (Tennessee) and the Microgravity Laboratory, (Porto Alegre, Brazil). I have attended and presented research at numerous space medicine conferences, high schools, hospitals and university departments around the globe. These activities have had to be self-funded. I have worked with and met hundreds of doctors and health professionals from around the world who also recognise the benefit of space medicine. It is a source of disappointment to them and myself that the United Kingdom does not at present seem to share this insight.


  6.  I established the 1st UK Space Medicine Conference in 2004 to explore the level of interest existed in this field within the UK. A lecture theatre was filled and a clear interest amongst both health professionals and students was highlighted. On the basis of this, the UK Space Biomedicine Group was formed as a focus for national Space Medicine education and research. Our efforts were commended by Sir Professor Graeme Catto, President of the General Medical Council who recognised that medicine in the UK must continue to push boundaries, and that doctors should maintain the ability to think laterally.

  7.  This meeting has gained interest each year, and the 3rd UK Space Medicine Conference was held on 30 September-1 October 2006 at the National Space Centre, Leicester. Over 100 delegates attended this year's meeting to see two days of lectures from 26 presenters, including representatives from NASA, the National Space Biomedicine Research Institute and the European Space Agency. Feedback was positive from all who attended, and an air of excitement and education was clear. I do not know of any branch of medicine which would inspire medical students enough to spend their own money and time on an intensive weekend medical conference in Leicester! It is difficult, however, when this level of enthusiasm is raised and students enquire about educational and research opportunities to advise them that they must fund these projects themselves if they are to pursue their passion.


  9.  Space medicine has clear educational benefits from primary school through to postgraduate levels. It provides a fresh way to study and learn about human physiology and pathophysiology. It excites and inspires students and encompasses many branches of science including physiology, physics, biology and psychology. It is closely related to history and international relations, amongst many other subjects. It is ideal holistic teaching material. I have lectured on the subject of space medicine from the Highlands of Scotland to China and have always received a warm response from students fascinated to learn more. Questions from students always run over time.


  11.  For every medical problem encountered in microgravity, an analogous condition occurs on Earth. This is one way in which space and hospital medicine are interconnected. Examples include:

    —    Post-flight orthostatic intolerance and othostatic intolerance experienced after bed rest and in conditions such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes and autonomic dysfunction.

    —    Space motion sickness and inner ear disturbances such as Menieres disease.

    —    Muscle atrophy experienced by astronauts and disuse muscle wasting following bed rest and sarcopenia of old age.

    —    Loss of bone mineral density in astronauts and disuse osteoporosis in hospital patients on bed rest or with immobolised limbs in plaster casts.


  13.  My particular area of interest is the condition of post-flight orthostatic intolerance. This is the difficulty astronauts have maintaining their blood pressure on standing up on return from microgravity. It a common and disabling condition for both astronauts and hospital patients. I worked with Dr David Robertson from the Center for Space Physiology and Medicine at Vanderbilt University during a medical elective. Dr Robertson is the founder of the American Autonomic Society and is a world expert in orthostatic intolerance. He recognizes the merits of the unique model of microgravity to research the complex mechanisms behind this condition. He conducted and designed an experiment to perform microneurography in microgravity in order to study the sympathetic nervous system in space. Such research broadens our understanding of such pathophysiology back on Earth.

  14.  I helped to set up research at the NASA Kennedy Space Center to study the use of ergotamine as a countermeasure to post-flight orthostatic intolerance. Apart from having the potential to treat post-flight OI in astronauts this drug may have implications for treating resistant orthostatic intolerance in hospital patients.

  15.  One of the main mechanisms of post-flight OI is loss of plasma volume in astronauts. I am working with Dr Yannis Pitsiladis and Mr Chris Easton at the University of Glasgow to study the effect of a new hyperhydration strategy on plasma volume and postural change. We hypothesise that hyperhydration with creatine and glycerol may help both astronauts and hospital patients with orthostatic intolerance by expanding plasma volume.


  17.  I was delighted to be invited to work at the Microgravity Laboratory in Brazil  earlier this year where I conducted unique research into cardiopulmonary resuscitation in hypogravity (ie simulated Martian and Lunar gravitational environments). Not only did this answer the interesting question of whether chest compression would be effective in such environments, but it allows us to reflect on hospital practice. A life support provider with low body mass performing chest compressions on a patient with low chest wall compliance may not be achieving adequate compression depth. The equipment we designed to monitor chest compression depth would be an ideal training tool for hospital life support providers.


  19.  Space medicine helps us to study the human body in microgravity. Of greater  interest to me as a hospital doctor is its ability to help us understand conditions on Earth, inspire students and doctors and to keep our medical minds fresh to new discovery. This, to me, is the very essence of what medicine and education is all about.

October 2006

39   Chair of International Activities, Space Medicine Association, constituent organization of the Aerospace Medical Association, Founder and Organiser of Annual UK Space Medicine Conference, and Co-Founder UK Space Biomedicine Group. Back

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