NASA employs 3-D images in collaborative clinic

Scientists at two NASA centers and four medical facilities last month demonstrated the possibilities of collaborative medicine, using the Internet to enable doctors and scientists at different sites to view 3-D medical images simultaneously.

Unlike traditional telemedicine, in which two parties pass information and images back and forth, last month's demonstration involved Internet-based "multicasting," with images being shared among multiple parties.

The idea of interactive, real-time "collaborative clinics," or "co-laboratories," has never been demonstrated before, said Muriel Ross, the director of the Center for Bioinformatics at NASA's Ames Research Center and the overall project manager.

Participants included Ames, the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field, the Stanford University Medical Center, the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital in California, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the Northern Navajo Medical Center.

During the demonstration, doctors were able to pull up scanned 3-D images of patients' hearts and skulls, rotating the images and indicating with an electronic pointer the areas of the images that they wanted to discuss. They discussed heart procedures and simulated reconstructive facial surgery.

NASA has a serious interest in collaborative medicine for long-term, interplanetary space flights. If a medical emergency arose during such a voyage, Ross explained, "there's no way you'd get the person back with any speed."

But with collaborative, long-distance medicine, experts on Earth could advise space travelers about treatments and then simulate surgical procedures, which physicians in space could practice before performing them. Among the software tools used in the demonstration was a "virtual scalpel" developed by NASA.

Networking Technology

The NASA demonstration pushed the boundaries of high-speed multicast technology, providing "major stress-testing," according to Christeen Falsetti, a product manager for multicast technology at Cisco Systems Inc., which assisted NASA with the project. This was the first time that high-bandwidth multicasting has been used live across disparate high-speed networks, she said.

Multicasting is important in sending information to a select audience. The demo was another step in proving the technology, Falsetti said. "Dr. Ross gave us a big, hairy problem." But NASA and Cisco were able to show that "multicasting has arrived," is reliable and robust and uses "very stable code."

Satellite-based communication is another key part of the collaborative-clinic concept. Although a storm hampered a planned satellite downlink to the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, N.M., the procedure worked successfully when tried again the following day.

The satellite aspect is important for downlinking to remote sites. Ames directed data to Glenn over the NASA Research and Education Network. Glenn then transmitted the information to Shiprock via satellite, according to Hugh la Master, an Ames engineer.

The satellite communication to Shiprock also used new Cisco router code to permit the sending of multicast traffic over a unidirectional link, according to engineers at Glenn. The return path was a low-bandwidth, dial-up PC modem.

This approach has potential to save money for large organizations with remote sites because the receiving sites do not need expensive satellite uplink equipment.

-- Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va. She can be reached at cbadams@erols.com.

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