NASA-backed institute calls on ophthalmic companies for space research help

November 20, 2014

NASA has struggled to understand why many astronauts, upon returning from space missions, have experienced moderate to severe eye problems and changes to their vision, said Dorit Donoviel, PhD.

Houston-NASA has struggled to understand why many astronauts, upon returning from space missions, have experienced moderate to severe eye problems and changes to their vision, said Dorit Donoviel, PhD.

In an effort to prevent and combat these issues, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) and the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine have launched the Vision for Mars Challenge to help identify and advance medical technologies for ocular health in space through collaboration and funding support.

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“NASA needs these next-generation clinical diagnostic and research-enabling technologies to provide critical information about ocular health during spaceflight. These technologies must be small, robust, and easy to use by non-experts,” said Dr. Donoviel, NSBRI’s deputy chief scientist and industry forum lead. “This is an excellent opportunity for small U.S.-based companies to receive funding and accelerate the development of their products.”

According to NSBRI, small companies are encouraged to apply with technologies that are compact enough to take into space and than can be used to run tests for the etiology and treatment of visual impairment syndrome in astronauts.

According to NSBRI, examples of the technologies and approaches needed by NASA include:

  • Ability to determine refraction in space

  • Visual field testing in space

  • An easier and more accurate way to measure IOP in space

  • Ability to measure scleral thickness at the posterior pole in space

  • Techniques to image the retinal and other eye vasculature in space

  • Ways to determine benign versus harmful disc edema

  • Ability to estimate translaminar pressure across lamina cribrosa

 

“This is very high priority for NASA,” Dr. Donoviel said, as vision poses the number two risk for astronauts.

The challenge also leverages Space Medical and Related Technologies Commercialization Assistance Program (SMARTCAP), an ongoing industry forum initiative that identifies and funds small U.S.-based companies developing novel medical technologies, Dr. Donoviel said.

SMARTCAP has been awarding funding to small companies since 2011, but just recently began including ophthalmology due to its importance to NASA, she said.

In conjunction with SMARTCAP, companies have until Dec. 4 to apply for funding.

“We will look at technologies and decide which we’re going to invest in and work with . . . to move along the commercialization path,” Dr. Donoviel said. “It’s for the little guys who need access to researchers and investors.”

The Vision for Mars Challenge will be giving away at least three grants worth $100,000 each that will be non-dilutive funding.

The awards will be announced in February and handed out in March, Dr. Donoviel said.

“We’re really trying to make this quick and keep up momentum to give them the money they need to move forward,” she explained.

The importance of what can be learned through the initiative is substantial not just for space research, but for research on earth, said Benjamin Frankfort, MD, PhD, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine, and who has done research on the Vision for Mars Challenge.

“Anything we can learn, even though different mechanisms, that can help us understand (ocular diseases such as) glaucoma is extremely helpful,” Dr. Frankfort said. “There is a lot we can learn here.”

“It’s amazing to think about the physical impact that astronauts endure in space, and maintaining the best possible vision is critical to them doing their jobs,” said Jane Rady, MS, MBA, who is part of the challenge’s ophthalmology dream team advisory board. “To continue space exploration beyond what’s possible today-for example, a manned mission to Mars-leaders in ophthalmology have to come together to help improve the ocular health of astronauts.

“Our industry, and ultimately patients, can benefit as well from these types of collaborations,” continued Rady, who is also divisional vice president of business development at Abbott Medical Optics. “NASA has been on the leading edge of science that has led to immeasurable discoveries, and technologies used in space have been redeployed for use in patient care.”