The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has developed a new device call the Microflow that is basically a much smaller, portable version of a flow cytometer. These are large devices used by hospitals and clinical labs for a large range of clinical diagnosis. By using fiber optic technology, the CSA has been able to make a extremely smaller version of the flow cytometer that will fly on the I.S.S. starting in Dec 2012. Having hospital grade equipment on the I.S.S. will increase the quality of medical care for the astronauts by allowing them to diagnose themselves without having to send samples all the way back to Earth for analysis. This new adaptation of a device that is already in common use in major medical facilities will also allow small or remote communities to have better health care options available. Agricultural and food processing plants would also be able to test bacterial levels in food. Protein and enzyme content of various food crops could also be monitored to increase quality.
So what exactly is a flow what-o-meter? Basically, if there’s something floating around in a fluid – this device can not only find it but find out exactly how much of it there is. A flow cytometer uses lasers to detect and identify many major components in blood and other fluid samples. It can identify specific bacteria, including multiple strains and show exactly how many of each bacteria are in a sample. Some cancers can be detected just from a blood sample as well as the ability of that specific cancer to resist treatment. Cell pigments, DNA, RNA, antigens, proteins, and enzymes can be analyzed in detail. This technology has been in development since the 1950’s because it allows for such detailed analysis of so many different factors on a quantitative scale.
This is yet another example of how space technology is going to affect everybody back here on Earth for the better. Anyone who has looked at a hospital bill knows that testing can account for a huge portion of the bill. Making medical devices smaller and more common may lower these costs as well as make them more accessible. Since this technology isn’t just limited to the medical sector, we may find additional uses for this device that have not been considered. The quality of our food may be increased and better water testing could allow for higher quality water. Industrial and commercial chemicals could be tested for contaminants. This could also help track microbiological wildlife such as phytoplankton, algae, or fungal blooms. One very interesting thing that this device could do if slightly modified would be to separate sperm based on gender, thus possibly allowing a person to select whether they have a male or female child. By making this extremely useful device portable, the CSA has not only made life better in space but also here on Earth.