NASA-funded UW researchers develop kidney-stone zapping technology

Michael Bailey, the principal investigator of the research team, with the ultrasound system that will be sent to the International Space Station. Bailey’s team is incorporating technology that breaks up kidney stones into the machine. (Photo from HSNewsBeat)

Imagine you are an astronaut, chosen for the first manned mission to Mars. After years of preparation, dozens of health checks, and months of space travel, you are ready to set foot on the Red Planet—and you develop a kidney stone.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab are working to solve this nightmare scenario.

Researchers use bursts of ultrasound to pulverize imitation kidney stones. (Photo from HSNewsBeat)

With help from a grant from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (a NASA-funded group), the team is developing a handheld ultrasound device that can detect and pulverize kidney stones—without surgery or bulky equipment.

The “Star Trek”-like tech uses focused ultrasound waves to detect and move the stones, then breaks them apart with short bursts of energy, making them easier for the astronaut to pass. This tech could have many applications for a long-term space mission.

“Originally it was that someone might have a blunt trauma, and we can focus ultrasound and stop bleeding,” Bailey said. “Then we realized that kidney stones were a big risk because bones are demineralizing and that will increase the likelihood of stones.”

Data from NASA indicates astronauts are more susceptible to developing kidney stones, and there has already been one case of an astronaut developing a stone on the International Space Station (ISS). Complications from kidney stones are severe enough that an astronaut would need to return to Earth for medical treatment if they weren’t able to pass one naturally.

Ultrasound tech developed by Bailey’s team will be on the next ultrasound device to be sent to the International Space Station. Photo by Andrey Armyagov, via Shutterstock.

“On a Mars mission, there’s no option to send someone back,” Bailey said.

The team has already developed the ability detect and move stones, and will be incorporating this technology in the next ultrasound system sent to the ISS.

They are currently working on the third step of the process—breaking apart the stones inside a patient.

In a hospital, stones are broken up by a process called Shock Wave Lithotripsy, where a refrigerator-sized machine breaks stones up using large jolts of ultrasound.

But the process uses X-rays to detect the stones, and requires several hundred pounds of equipment, making it unusable for space travel.

Adam Maxwell, an assistant professor of Urology at UW, has adapted this tech to create Burst Wave Lithotripsy (BWL), which breaks the stones apart with smaller, more frequent bursts of ultrasound.

Anne Zwaschka, a student working with the team, explained that the traditional technique is like hitting a stone with a hammer—but BWL is like chiseling away at it over and over. Because BWL takes less energy, the machine is much lighter and compact. It may also be more effective than previous techniques.

For more on how Burst Wave Lithotripsy works, check out this video from the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Bailey explained that the challenge of developing this treatment is finding a way to focus the ultrasound. Now that the team has passed this hurdle, they will move on to testing BWL’s abilities and possible side effects, eventually running clinical trials. Burst Wave Lithotripsy could also be used to treat a variety of other issues that an astronaut may face.

“Its software is flexible, so there could be apps that could extend its functionality,” Bailey said.

The technique could be used for procedures like stopping bleeding, strengthening bones or even performing ultrasound surgery, without breaking the patients’ skin.

Bailey added that similar technology is being used at Seattle’s Swedish Medical center to treat tremors without performing surgery on the brain, and at other medical centers it has been used to remove prostate cancer.