HOUSTON — Astronauts attending others who become ill in space will be able to place a small plastic card in a laser scanner and review the patient's entire medical history.
The medical "credit cards" are being developed by a University of Houston professor of biology through a three-year, $180,000 grant from NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Lasers are used to place up to 800 pages of medical information on the cards, said Dr. J. H. U. Brown.
"If you look at the average medical record, you have 80 or 90 pages of ordinary 8-by-10 typewritten pages of information--lab data, X-rays, drugs and so on," Brown said. "We can take all of that and put all that . . . on a credit card."
The cards will be carried with astronauts and the information on them can be called up on any ordinary personal computer, he said. New data also can be added to the cards following medical exams or treatment.
In addition to carrying needed medical information into space in a tiny form, the cards also will allow astronauts to carry their medical histories with them as they travel to various NASA centers nationwide.
"You could also add information about the type of work they're doing, whether they've been trained in certain ways and other information," Brown said. "That information is always with them and always available."
The "credit cards" have a gold-colored strip made of a chemical compound. A laser beam can be used to etch information into that compound. Information is placed on the card in code so that it cannot be tampered with if it falls into the wrong hands.
Brown, who has been developing the cards through Sumitomo Corp. of America, also is working on a pilot project to provide similar medical cards for some patients in the Harris County Hospital District.
He said such cards eventually could be used to carry academic records from kindergarten through the Ph.D. level.
But Brown said the cards are "a natural for NASA" and eventually could be used in a variety of ways at the agency's space centers.
Invented by Drexler
Technology for the cards first was invented by Drexler Technology Corp., but the firm did not have sufficient resources to develop the cards for commercial application.
The company gave 11 other firms, including CSK Corp. of Tokyo, the right to technical licensing for the basic technology. Because CSK, a major computer software firm in Japan, does not have American offices, it entered into a working agreement with Sumitomo for marketing of its LaserCard System in the United States, said K. Nishimura, a Sumitomo vice president.
The first joint development agreement for the cards involved Baylor College of Medicine, CSK and Sumitomo, Nishimura said. Some computer hardware and software being developed through Baylor is being applied to the NASA project, he said.
The LaserCard System also is being developed in Japan, where CSK is aiming for a wide variety of uses, including bank and medical records.