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UCLA fellowship preparing flight surgeons for Mars and beyond

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Posted at 11:34 AM, Feb 24, 2022

LOS ANGELES — More than a half-century since man stepped on the moon, a new era of space exploration is here. The advancements are paving the way for a new frontier in medicine.

“We've never been in a situation where we've sent someone to a different planet. We've never been in a situation where the human body is going to undergo years of significant changes," said Haig Aintablian, MD, a fourth-year emergency medicine resident at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

An ER doctor in training, Aintablian was the first physician selected for the UCLA Space Medicine Fellowship, a first-of-its-kind program preparing a new generation of flight surgeons for trips to outer space.

"In the breadth of specialties, emergency medicine is seen kind of as the Swiss Army Knife specialty. You see everything," said Dr. Aintablian. "For the first time in human history, we're going to be a multi-planetary species. We're going to be able to call Earth and Mars home at some point.”

Once a thing of science fiction, lunar tourism and space vacations could be a reality sooner than we think.

“As we start to develop more of this infrastructure, which is going to happen in the next five to 10 years, where you start seeing like a moon hotel kind of thing, potentially, space tourists going to Mars," said Aintablian. "Those are the missions that you would need a physician for.”

He'll undergo rigorous training in the arctic, underwater, and habitats simulating conditions on Mars.

“Our goal as flight surgeons isn't necessarily to have a perfect grasp on everything. It's able to adapt to whatever comes in this extremely austere, variable environment.”

From alleviating brain bleeds to performing appendectomies.

“We are not designed for space," said Aintablian. "Your intestines float freely in your belly, so your appendix might not be classically where you think it is."

The program includes rotations at aerospace company SpaceX, a specialized engineering curriculum developed by Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and biomechanical engineering training at UCLA’s Samueli School of Engineering.

Dr. Aintablian says extended missions, deeper into space, create new risks for the human body.

“We're going to be, essentially, in this hot bath of radiation as we go to Mars. The risk of cancers, those things, could pop up."

While NASA has space surgeons, he says they typically monitor crews from the ground.

"It's a very humbling moment for all of us," said Aintablian. "It's all starting right now."

One giant step for humanity and a leap for modern medicine.