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Radical New Lab Fights Disease Using Satellites

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Jan. 16, 2008: A group of atmospheric research scientists at NASA's National Space Science and Technology Center felt a little like they were in a foreign country when they first met with University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health representatives to discuss an unusual partnership.

"When we first got together, it was as if we were speaking entirely different languages," says NASA's Dale Quattrochi.

see captionBut very soon both parties began to realize how NASA satellite data could translate into vital public health information.

"We started seeing how it was really a great fit. It was wonderful. The lights clicked on!" Quattrochi said.

Right: Jeffrey Luvall, William Crosson, Dale Quattrochi and Maurice Estes, Jr. review satellite data for the Chicago metropolitan area. [Larger image]

In the past 50 years, satellites have revolutionized weather forecasting and communications, so why not human health?

The scientists from UAB and NASA realized that rocket science could be focused down to the level of microbiology and public health and yield huge advances in both. That "ah-ha" moment sparked idea after idea about ways to combat public health problems with satellite data.

One of their best ideas was to teach public health students, the researchers and medical personnel of the future, to harness the power of satellite imagery to study and fight modern-day disease. This idea led UAB to create a remote sensing lab – in fact the first U.S. dedicated remote sensing lab for medical and public health use – to do just that.

Students at the lab take "cross-training" courses with NASA/NSSTC scientists such as Dr. Dale Quattrochi, Dr. Jeff Luvall, Dr. Douglas Rickman, Dr. Mohammad Al-Hamdan, Dr. William Crosson, and Mr. Maurice Estes as guest lecturers and invited experts. Many of the NASA/NSSTC scientists have been appointed as adjunct professors at the UAB School of Public Health. And the innovative research performed from the lab is cutting edge.

"This lab and the studies it supports will help both our own generation and future generations," says NSSTC's Jeff Luvall. "This is a turning point in public health. Who knows where it will lead?"

Studies sponsored by the lab have already led to critical research in fighting malaria. Infrared imagery from satellites is helping scientists locate warm standing water – fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. Then the problem areas can be treated effectively and precisely, stopping the spread of malaria. Other researchers at the lab are using satellite imagery to correlate cases of West Nile virus with nearness to tire dumps -- another favorite breeding ground for the virus-carrying mosquito.

see caption

Above: NASA satellites measure and map ground temperatures in the Chicago metropolitan area. [Larger image]

Remote sensing has even proven valuable in tracking environmental influences on childhood asthma. Satellite data are revealing pollution levels and other environmental factors where the children live to find out whether these factors might be triggering asthma attacks. Children can then be given asthma therapy to protect them from the effects.

Another study is seeking links between the environment and cardiovascular diseases, including stroke. UAB has been working on a large study called REGARDS, short for Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke. The study, funded by the National Institute of Health, sampled over 30,000 people across the U.S. with in-home surveys which included taking their blood pressure and blood samples and administering a detailed health questionnaire. The survey focused mostly on African-Americans because that group has been shown to have a higher risk of contracting the conditions the study examined – cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and stroke – to name a few.

"Both UAB and NASA want to understand, using NASA satellite data on air quality, heat indexes, temperature, humidity, and other environmental elements, how the environment is influencing the diseases and conditions targeted by REGARDS," explains Quattrochi. "This study's findings could help health officials with environmental exposure and health recommendations."

Many other studies are planned or in progress, including investigations about how water affects dental health and about the correlations between lead, mercury, and pesticides with health problems in mothers and babies overseas.

Just imagine how thrilled a designer of one of the first satellites from 50 years ago would be to learn that satellites in space are now combating health problems and saving lives.

That's good news in any language.

Author: Dauna Coulter | Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

more information  

The Laboratory for Global Health Observation was developed in the summer of 2006 by Sarah Parcak, Ph.D., in Anthropology and Tennant McWilliams, Ph.D., former dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences, as a partnership between the Schools of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Public Health. The potential for a remote sensing lab, in particular the medical and health research possibilities, evolved into a partnership with Max Michael, Ph.D., dean of the School of Public Health. The primary focus of the remote sensing lab is medical and health-based applications for satellite remote sensing. The overall mission is to look at broad-scale applications of satellite remote sensing and ways in which this information can be used across diverse fields in the context of international outreach programs. Dr. Parcak is director of the laboratory.

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