Space technology is an important part of our daily life. It is applied to things we use every day, such as car navigation systems, air purifiers, weather forecast, and pillows.
The medical field is no exception. Technology that was developed to help maintain the health of astronauts exposed to zero-gravity for extended periods of time is now being applied on Earth in a commercial product. Here is what we learned in our interview with Kurume University professor of orthopedic surgery, Naoto Shiba, about how his "hybrid training theory" shared a commonality with a problem facing astronauts, and the "Knee Trainer" product developed and commercialized based on his theory.
Initially, Dr. Shiba was researching a muscle strength training method that uses electrical signals as well as a combination of elbow and knee stretching. This method, called "hybrid training", could efficiently build muscles in a short period of time. It had also been effective in preventing muscle atrophy in people who must spend long periods of time in an environment that imposes reduced levels of activity.
Hospitalization reduces daily activity levels. It is commonly known that, as a result, hospitalized patients experience weakness, muscle strength deterioration, and decreased bone density. Dr. Shiba realized that astronauts who spend long periods of time in zero-gravity space share the same problem with these patients.
He presented his training method to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The agency recognized the effectiveness of the method, and further research began. Since then, the theory originally developed for medical use was applied for development of muscle training equipment for astronauts and turned it to a product for consumers.
This technology, which was patented in the U.S. and Japan, took ten years to be commercialized.
The biggest challenge was the device's interface. Because the product was going to be for consumers, especially for the elderly, the instrument for research needed to be redesigned for better usability. After fit and user experience of the device was tested and validated by a leading consumer electronics manufacturer, the product "Knee Trainer" was successfully launched.
While the "Knee Trainer" was marketed for the elderly, it could have been developed for strength training for younger generations, as it was originally intended for preventing muscle weakness in astronauts.
"Yes, we could have. But given the ever-increasing elderly population in Japan, I considered extending healthy lifespan a higher priority".
Healthy lifespan means the years in life in which one is in good health without being dependent on ongoing medical care or long-term care. To extend healthy lifespan, exercising is considered critical to maintain muscle strength.
Users of the device report that they are gaining muscle strength which they weren't able to with other devices and that they are relieved from knee pain. Although the device is currently sold by Panasonic as a health appliance, it might be converted to a medical device.
This technology is also applicable to areas that are closer to our lives than the aerospace and medical fields. There is ongoing research that includes application of this technology in a weight loss tool; one study is looking at taking data from people with "metabolic syndrome". Dr. Shiba is also developing a pedaling machine to be used in bed.
"My hope is to develop medical devices that help people who cannot exercise freely because of painful degenerative joint disease maintain their muscle strength," says Dr. Shiba.
In the aerospace field, the U.S. is planning to go to Mars, which will require astronauts to stay under zero-gravity for even longer periods of time. How efficiently astronauts can exercise in a confined area such as spacecraft is also being validated in a zero-gravity environment. Research and development are continuing for medical and space applications.
Technology used in medical and rehabilitation applications on Earth has become key to solving a problem faced by astronauts in space while technology developed for a life in space is now supporting our daily life on Earth. They are closely intertwined. "Space" is much closer to us than we think.