Pantalos, professor of surgery and bioengineering attached to the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute at UofL, and Carnegie Mellon bioengineering researchers James Antaki, James Burgess and Jennifer Hayden are in Houston, Texas, this week for several flights aboard NASA’s zero-gravity aircraft to test a surgical system that would make “astro-surgery” possible.

The device, known as the Aqueous Immersion Surgical System (AISS), resembles a transparent dome the size of half of a grapefruit. It is designed to be mounted over a patient’s surgical site.

Openings that are both air- and watertight allow the surgical staff to conduct surgery and control bleeding and loss of bodily fluids through a pressurized aqueous environment created within the surgical field. Water pumped through the device safely removes blood and other body fluids; without the controlled environment the AISS creates, these fluids would be released into the spacecraft cabin. The device also prevents air and other contaminants from getting into the surgical site.

“In the weightless atmosphere of deep space, the absence of gravity will make it nearly impossible to control the escape of blood and bodily fluids during surgery,” Pantalos said. “This lack of control would both compromise the health of the patient as well as contaminate the spacecraft cabin.”

Between Oct. 2 and Oct. 5, the researchers will fly four tests aboard a C-9 aircraft that NASA uses both to train astronauts and other pilots for weightless conditions and for a select group of research projects, such as the AISS. Pilots create a weightlessness effect on the aircraft by ascending and descending in a series of parabolic arcs.

“You are floating in the air but it is not like the same feeling you experience when you float in water,” said Pantalos, a veteran of 28 such flights. “Things shift around inside your body. You feel as though you are upside down even though visually you can see that you are right side up.”

“Testing the AISS in spacelike conditions will show us how it will work both in deep space and on the ground,” Pantalos said. “If it functions as it should under zero-gravity conditions, we will be confident it will function as designed here on Earth.”

Ground applications of the AISS could include its use in regions where it is difficult or impossible to create a sterile surgical environment, such as war zones or Third World countries, or in challenging procedures such as brain or spinal cord surgery.

The need for the device in space is 15 to 20 years away, but it is important to develop the technology now before an extended-mission spacecraft is developed, Pantalos said.

“We must research and develop it all in tandem so when the spacecraft is ready to go, everything else will be as well,” he said.

Jill Scoggins is Director of Communications at UofL's Louis D. Brandeis School of Law. She has been at UofL since 2010.