Baylor College of Medicine

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X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/G.Schellenberger et al.
An image of deep space, with brightly colored lights against a backdrop of black void.

Deep space research can help during COVID-19 pandemic

Kaylee Dusang


Houston, TX -

As the novel coronavirus pushes the American healthcare system to capacity, relief may come from research aiming to protect astronaut health in deep space.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at the Baylor College of Medicine funds health and performance research for a future human-crewed mission to Mars. The Institute is a partner to NASA's Human Research Program.

"Now more than ever, we are seeing how the research we fund to help our astronauts survive deep-space missions has immediate impact for all of us on Earth," said TRISH Director Dr. Dorit Donoviel, associate professor in the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor. 

In deep space, astronauts will need to self-diagnose and provide their treatment, as access to a doctor or hospital is not possible. The Institute is working with VisualDx to build a clinical decision support tool for the mission to Mars.  

The VisualDx app combines machine learning with clinical data to accurately diagnose many medical conditions. The technology has been implemented by tens of thousands of providers and in more than 2,300 hospitals and large clinics globally. In response to the emergent needs of the pandemic, the company modified the app to contain the information needed to differentiate between COVID-19, the flu or a common cold.

With TRISH support, VisualDx is building a version that works without an internet connection. This way, it can be used by astronauts on the way to Mars and by healthcare workers in places where internet access is limited.

TRISH also is exploring new approaches to medical training for space travel. The Institute partnered with Level Ex, a medical gaming company, to produce a platform that can simulate anatomy in Zero-G. The Virtual Human Simulator might be used to train physicians and astronauts alike on the changes that take place inside the body without gravity.

Today, there is a need for quick access to COVID-19-specific information for medical professionals. Level Ex has added COVID-19-relevant functionality to its Airway Ex app, which trains medical professionals treating the airway system. The app is now available for free to help healthcare workers avoid exposure. TRISH is supporting future updates, which will include laryngoscope and intubation training modules.

Whether on the way to Mars or on Earth today, being able to diagnose a new virus and to make therapies against it right away can be life-saving. Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and at the NASA-Ames Research Center in Menlo Park, Calif., recently received additional funding from TRISH to tailor their just-in-time platforms of nucleotide-based therapies to COVID-19. If successful, these approaches will provide novel ways to fight the virus quickly but also provide proof of concept for a future virus that astronauts may face on the way to Mars.

In space, 3D printing allows astronauts to create as-needed tools and supplies. TRISH funded the work of Dr. George Pantalos at the University of Louisville to develop 3D-printed surgical instruments for exploration space flight. This work has paved the way for a new just-in-time project: 3D printing pliable resin swabs to combat the shortage in COVID-19 test kits. Clinical trials using the printed swaps begin this month. If results are favorable, they could be ready for use as early as the beginning of May.

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