Nanosensors inside astronauts’ cells could warn of health impacts from space radiation

Scientists are developing a technology that could detect changes inside individual cells while those cells are still inside your body.

“Nanoparticles” would be placed inside the cells to work as molecule-size sensors. Whenever these sensors encounter certain signs of trouble — an invading virus for example– they would begin to glow, signaling that something is wrong.

NASA is interested in how this technology might help tackle the radiation astronauts on a mission to Mars get exposed to radiation during their journey there. The spaceship would be shielded, but it might not be enough to fully protect the men.

James Baker, director of the Center for Biologic Nanotechnology at the University of Michigan, believes that nanoparticles can help. “Nanoparticles let us monitor the actual biological impact of radiation on the astronauts’ bodies, which is more meaningful than simply measuring the radiation itself,” he explains.

Before a space mission, an astronaut would inject a liquid, laced with nanoparticles, into his bloodstream. During flight, he would put a device in his ear. This device relies on a tiny laser to count glowing cells as they flow through capillaries in the eardrum. A wireless link relays those data to the spaceship’s main computer for processing.


This is still 5 to 10 years away, but a lot of the necessary pieces are already taking shape in Baker’s lab.

Details in PhysOrg.
Image courtesy University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.