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Astronaut - heal thyself

Nasa says an astronaut will land on Mars by the year 2020 Keystone Archive

If astronauts ever make it to Mars, the chances are that before they blast off on their epic journey they will be trained on a virtual reality simulator to mend broken bones.

This content was published on December 10, 2001 - 22:21

The first manned mission to the Red Planet isn't expected until about 2020, but Swiss surgeons and NASA scientists have already cemented a deal to make sure if limbs are smashed on the way there or during a walkabout, they will be able to fix them.

With little room for outer space operating rooms in the cramped confines of their spacecraft, it will be a case of heal thyself or each other, for astronauts expected to make the round trip journey that could take two years or more.

NASA and the Davos-based Association for the Study of Internal Fixation (AO-ASIF) are developing a computer-based surgical simulator to train surgeons on Earth and astronauts with tickets to Mars in the fine art of trauma surgery.

A prototype for various operations will be available in around 2005.

Lessons in surgery

"If we have simulators, not only orthopaedic surgeons can be trained, but NASA could use the simulators to train astronauts, because a journey to Mars will be at least six months. So if they have any injuries, another person will have to help their colleague," said Dr Andy Weymann, of the AO foundation, who is working with NASA on the project.

The foundation, a non-profit organisation of surgeons, pioneered internal fixation - using internal stainless steel or titanium plates, nuts and bolts -instead of plaster casts to heal fractures 40 years ago. With NASA at the cutting edge of virtual reality technology, the match seemed made in space.

"We are pretty sure that within the next three or four years we will have a good simulator to train surgeons and astronauts with the procedure," said Weymann.

Unlike casts, which immobilise broken bones and joints for many weeks and can cause swelling, pain and redness, internal fixation prevents stiffness of joints, ligaments and tendons and offers the possibility of pain-free mobilisation quickly after surgery.

Fixing limbs

Weymann said the operations, which can take from one to four hours depending on the place and type of fracture, are cheaper and offer a quicker recovery time than casts.

The plates and bolts can also be placed on the outside of the limb in a procedure called external fixation.

Since the AO developed the method, it has trained more than 300,000 surgeons worldwide in the technique, which is used to treat up to 80 percent of fractures in some countries.

"It is not a cast. The bones are fixed with pins and these pins are connected by bars," explained Dr Christian Rys, the head of surgery at Davos Hospital in Switzerland.

In addition to fixing limbs, the technique can also be used for osteoporosis patients and in facial surgery.

"I don't think NASA will be able to take an operating room into space, so they must use several procedures which can be performed in a normal room, like an external fixation which is minimally invasive," said Rys.

swissinfo with agencies

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