The National Space and Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), headquartered at Baylor College of Medicine, has chosen three winners for the Vision for Mars Challenge.
This challenge launched in November 2014 and focuses on identifying ophthalmic companies that are developing diagnostic tools that will help understand and treat the visual alterations that many astronauts experience during space flight.
The winning companies are Annidis Inc., Equinox LLC and Web Vision Centers Group, LLC.
“Vision changes in space are believed to be associated with the increase of pressure on the brain, and the winners will use their funds to fully develop tools and technology that can help diagnose astronauts very early.” said Dr. Dorit Donoviel, deputy chief scientist for NSBRI and assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and the Center for Space Medicine.
Annidis Inc.’s winning instrument, multi-spectral imaging digital ophthalmoscope, is already fully developed and on the U.S. and Chinese markets. Donoviel referred to this company as “the best kept secret in the ophthalmology and optometry community” because its technology has outpaced the clinical use.
Multi spectral Imaging (MSI) uses safe, discrete, light emitting diodes (LEDs) across a wavelength range from 520 nm (green) to 940 nm (infrared) to progressively examine the layers of the retina and choroid; the longer wavelengths penetrate deeper into the structures of the eye. This device is able to enhance visualization of very small details in the eye, which typically can only be seen through invasive procedures. Donoviel said the company’s funds will go toward a clinical study to understand the correlation between the findings of the technology and what that means for the patients.
The trial is targeted toward idiopathic intracranial hypertension patients because some of their symptoms and findings are similar to those of astronauts.
“This ended up being a great opportunity for Baylor,” she said. “Baylor neurologist, Dr. Eric Bershad, and ophthalmologist and clinical instructor, Dr. David M. Brown, will lead the clinical study, which is focusing on a patient population that has not been well-studied before.”
Out of the three winners, Equinox, LLC is the only winner to use the funds for a therapeutic device. Although it is unknown what causes the pressure issues astronauts’ experience, there is one hypothesis for this change.
“We believe that astronauts may be experiencing reverse glaucoma, which means they experience high pressure in the brain that pushes outward and onto the eye,” Donoviel said.
She said because of this hypothesis Equinox, LLC proposed to develop a device to slightly “push back” to stabilize the pressure in the eye by creating mild pressure-inducing goggles. The goggles will need to be worn for a specific amount a time in order to alleviate the pressure differential that is causing the problem.
“This technology has the potential to benefit the millions of glaucoma patients around the world who do not respond to or cannot take the medication,” she said. “By dialing in a desired pressure in the eye and mechanically adjusting the goggles, patients can avoid surgery or the side effects of medication.”
Equinox, LLC will use the funding from this award to obtain important safety data before applying for FDA approval.
Web Vision Center Groups, LLC are using the awarded funds to work with companies that can make glasses with lenses that are easily changed in order to fit a person’s prescription. Donoviel said astronauts’ eyes change shape in space due to reduced gravity which causes their prescriptions to change frequently.
“These glasses are truly responding to one of NASA’s immediate operational needs. In the past, it was able to offer adjustable glasses to astronauts, but the company that made those went out of business so NASA has been unable to offer specialty glasses to astronauts for quite some time,” she said.
She said Web Vision Center Groups plans to have several options for space adjustment glasses. One possibility is electronic glasses. Astronauts will be able to plug their glasses into a computer which will allow them to change the prisms in the lenses which will change the prescription. The other option that is available today is magnetic lenses, which enables wearers to pop in/out lenses with different prescriptions as needed. Five former NASA astronauts that are on the NSBRI User Panel met with the company at Baylor and tested these and other types of interchangeable glasses.
The Earth-based market for these lenses are patients that undergo eye surgery whose prescriptions change over time, diabetic patients who have variable prescriptions, and children who require new glasses as their eyes and vision changes frequently.
The hopes of NSBRI and the Center for Space Medicine are that all of these tools will be developed to serve astronauts in space, as well as patients needing medical care around the world. In the past, NSBRI has worked with companies to develop a number of medical products that can be used in space and also on Earth.