(Image: Robina Weermeijer/Unsplash)About one in 11 Americans will experience the discomfort of a kidney stone in their lifetime. While some might think of these pesky mineral clumps as earthly inconveniences, they’re a problem up in space, too, prompting NASA to devise a treatment solution appropriate for those suffering among the stars. Their technique could be the secret to eliminating kidney stones quickly and painlessly.
Kidney stones are hard, often jagged mineral deposits that manifest in the ureter, which connects the kidneys with the bladder. While smaller kidney stones (up to 3 mm in diameter) can sometimes pass through the body on their own, larger stones (up to 20 mm) must be broken up within the body or removed surgically. Breaking them up has historically required shock wave lithotripsy (SWL), a technique in which hundreds of shock waves are directed toward the stone from outside of the body.
Though effective, SWL has its caveats. Not only is it effective only half of the time, but it’s painful, which means patients must be anesthetized. This makes the procedure more expensive and time-consuming. Anesthesia also isn’t ideal for people traveling through space, which is what propelled NASA to devise and test an alternative method. The agency shared its new technique in a recent issue of The Journal of Urology.
NASA’s technique combines two ultrasound technologies: ultrasound propulsion and burst wave lithotripsy (BWL). When a patient has a kidney stone, the doctor can place a handheld transducer on the patient’s skin to target the stone with ultrasound waves. These waves help to move and reposition the stone to encourage passage through the body. If the stone is too large or misshapen to pass through the ureter naturally, the doctor can use NASA’s new BWL system to gently and painlessly break up the stone. A lack of pain precludes the need for anesthesia, making the procedure far quicker and more accessible than SWL.
The feasibility study published in The Journal of Urology states that out of 29 trial patients, 16 received ultrasound propulsion while 13 received propulsion and BWL. The kidney stones progressed through the bodies of 21 patients total, resulting in a higher success rate than SWL. One patient even reported “immediate relief” following the completion of the procedure. The average time for a complete stone passage was four days.
NASA hopes its technique, which was developed alongside the University of Washington and aerospace contractor ZIN Technologies, will soon move into a clinical trial involving a control group. This will allow the teams to measure exactly how much more effective ultrasound propulsion and BWL are than existing kidney stone treatment methods.