Science & Technology

Argentine research project in Antarctica exploring limits of telemedicine

By Javier Castro Bugarin

Buenos Aires, Aug 26 (efe-epa).- Thousands of kilometers separate Buenos Aires from the Argentine scientific research stations of Carlini and Belgrano II, located in the remote and harsh polar region of Antarctica.

At Belgrano II, for example, the mercury plummets to -60 C (-76 F) in winter and the crew living there spend four months a year in total darkness, circumstances that pose enormous challenges yet also provide the ideal setting for space research.

Why is this so? A select few places on Earth offer the extreme conditions that can simulate what an astronaut would encounter in outer space, whether due to their climate, terrain or unique biological characteristics.

Although neither Belgrano II nor Carlini are considered to be “space analogues,” their conditions of extreme isolation have led a group of scientists from Argentina and several other countries to employ them as testing grounds for the “Tempus Pro,” a telemedicine device that could be used in future space expeditions.

“It’s a device that’s already available on the market, but there was an interest in testing it in an extreme condition before it was taken to real space conditions,” one of the participating scientists, Argentina’s Daniel Vigo, told Efe.

In addition to Argentine institutions and universities such as the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet), the Argentine Antarctic Institute, the Antarctica Joint Command, the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) and the National University of Quilmes, the European Space Agency also is represented in the Tempus Pro project through scientist Victor Demaria Pesce.

“What’s simulated in particular in Antarctica are conditions of extreme isolation and confinement. It’s perhaps the most isolated place on Earth where some type of human settlement exists,” said Vigo, an independent researcher at Conicet and the UCA.

He noted that individuals who spend a year in Antarctica experience what are known as “extreme photoperiods,” the result of being exposed to continuous illumination for four months and to total darkness for another four months.

These fluctuations in light have the effect of “desynchronizing” a person’s biological rhythms, Vigo said.

Another peculiarity of Belgrano II is its extreme weather. Built on rocky ground and located at a latitude of 78 degrees south, roughly 1,300 km (800 miles) from the South Pole, the cold there is so intense that the station’s crew spend much of the year sheltering themselves from the elements

“Their outings in the winter are quite limited and they’re more or less confined within the station. That’s what’s of interest to us, the confinement to which they’re subjected,” Vigo said.

Through their investigations at Belgrano II, Vigo and the other Argentine scientists established contact with the ESA’s Demaria Pesce and discussed the possibility of linking up the work at the base with the interests of Europe’s space agency.

That spirit of cooperation was the genesis of the project involving the Tempus Pro, a telemedicine device designed in the United Kingdom that the ESA had already used in 2017 following French astronaut Thomas Pesquet’s return from the International Space Station.

But what is unique about this square-shaped object equipped with a screen, buttons and several cables?

Tempus Pro monitors patients’ vital signs and can perform different medical procedures such as ultrasounds and intubations, Vigo said, adding that the data the device collects is sent in real time via satellite to a doctor located in another place, possibly as far away as another planet.

“It’s a very sophisticated telemedicine device,” said Vigo, who explained that it can be operated both by doctors taking part in an expedition and non-experts alike.

A defibrillator also can be connected to the Tempus Pro in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, making it an ideal device for monitoring astronauts’ health during future missions to the Moon or Mars.

The device has been used since last year at the Belgrano II and Carlini bases, where scientists simulate different medical scenarios that astronauts may encounter in space, including fractures and cardiorespiratory problems.

The medical protocols established for these situations are followed and doctors on the base communicate in real time with counterparts located in Buenos Aires.

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