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The astronaut's doctor: A toaster-sized 'miracle box'

The astronaut's doctor: A toaster-sized 'miracle box'

Posting in Cancer

Could a toaster-sized box help diagnose medical conditions for astronauts?

The astronaut's 'miracle box', the Microflow, is a box that can detect "everything from infections, to stress, blood cells and cancer markers," and is being tested on board the International Space Station (ISS).

Developed by the Quebec-based National Optics Institute External (INO), it may not be the impressive size of the Curiosity Mars rover, but NASA claims that the 10kg box is able to detect a number of ailments in only ten minutes.

The Microflow is a miniature version of a flow cytometer -- a device which is used to diagnose medical conditions -- which is usually not portable and weigh several hundred pounds. The machine uses fiber-optic technology to detect cell markers, blood cells and biological matter through a liquid sample within only ten minutes.

It is hoped that the Microflow could be a portable solution which offers real-time medical diagnosis for astronauts, those in rural communities and where medical equipment is not often available.

As well as detecting biological markers, the Microflow may prove useful to test the quality of food on Earth. Weighing in at less than 22lb (10kg), the device takes up about the same amount of space as a toaster.

In conjunction with NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will be running a pilot project on the ISS. However, due to the weightlessness of space, the CSA first had to develop a method to prevent fluid test samples from becoming unfocused. As a result, the designers -- led by Dr Ozzy Mermut from INO and Dr Luchino Cohen from the CSA -- built Microflow to tackle this issue. The stream of liquid which contains test particles doesn't loose focus without gravity, and afterwards, data is sent via a USB key for later study.

The machine will be put through its paces during astronaut Chris Hadfield's six month mission on the ISS.

Image credit: CSA

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure