Friday, January 18, 2008

Radical New Lab Fights Disease Using Satellites

A group of atmospheric research scientists at NASA's National Space Science and Technology Center felt a little like they were in a foreign country when they first met with University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health representatives to discuss an unusual partnership. "When we first got together, it was as if we were speaking entirely different languages," says NASA's Dale Quattrochi.

But very soon both parties began to realize how NASA satellite data could translate into vital public health information.

"We started seeing how it was really a great fit. It was wonderful. The lights clicked on!" Quattrochi said. In the past 50 years, satellites have revolutionized weather forecasting and communications, so why not human health?

The scientists from UAB and NASA realized that rocket science could be focused down to the level of microbiology and public health and yield huge advances in both. That "ah-ha" moment sparked idea after idea about ways to combat public health problems with satellite data.

One of their best ideas was to teach public health students, the researchers and medical personnel of the future, to harness the power of satellite imagery to study and fight modern-day disease. This idea led UAB to create a remote sensing lab - in fact the first U.S. dedicated remote sensing lab for medical and public health use - to do just that.

Studies sponsored by the lab have already led to critical research in fighting malaria. Infrared imagery from satellites is helping scientists locate warm standing water - fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. Then the problem areas can be treated effectively and precisely, stopping the spread of malaria. Other researchers at the lab are using satellite imagery to correlate cases of West Nile virus with nearness to tire dumps -- another favorite breeding ground for the virus-carrying mosquito.

Remote sensing has even proven valuable in tracking environmental influences on childhood asthma. Satellite data are revealing pollution levels and other environmental factors where the children live to find out whether these factors might be triggering asthma attacks. Children can then be given asthma therapy to protect them from the effects.

"Both UAB and NASA want to understand, using NASA satellite data on air quality, heat indexes, temperature, humidity, and other environmental elements, how the environment is influencing the diseases and conditions targeted by REGARDS," explains Quattrochi. "This study's findings could help health officials with environmental exposure and health recommendations."

Just imagine how thrilled a designer of one of the first satellites from 50 years ago would be to learn that satellites in space are now combating health problems and saving lives.

That's good news in any language.

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