Center for Space Medicine

Keeping an Eye on Eye Health for Deep Space Missions

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Dr. Ryo Kubota, M.D., Ph.D.
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(Picture Left: Dr. Ryo Kubota, M.D., Ph.D., and Chairman, President and CEO of Acucela presents the TRISH-supported project at the 2020 NASA Human Research Program's Investigators' Workshop.)

Traveling to Mars is no quick jaunt. In fact, round trip it will take astronauts approximately three years to complete. During that time, a crew must be completely self-sufficient, bringing with them the knowledge and the necessities to keep them healthy during the journey. While space for medical instruments is limited onboard, it is critical to anticipate potential health issues and design innovative solutions for our astronauts.

Enter the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH). TRISH has been tasked by NASA to support the development of new health technologies for use in deep space.

There are unique vision challenges connected to spaceflight. If left untreated, impaired eyesight could mean mission failure on the way to Mars. TRISH selected Acucela Inc. (Acucela), a clinical-stage ophthalmology company and wholly-owned subsidiary of Kubota Pharmaceutical Holdings Co., Ltd., to design a non-invasive tool to monitor eye health in space. Leading the ground-breaking research as primary investigator is Dr. Ryo Kubota, M.D., Ph.D., and Chairman, President and CEO of Acucela.

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Development of a Compact OCT

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Maintaining peak vision and eye health for astronaut crew is critical to a successful mission, but your eyes – and eye sight - change in zero gravity. Spaceflight Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS) is a common occurrence during long-duration space missions, affecting over two-thirds of astronauts. Symptoms include decreased near vision, swelling of the optic nerve, and deformation of eye structures, which increase with extended exposure to zero gravity. While astronauts have experienced severe vision loss in long duration flight, they have substantially recovered upon return to earth. However, vision loss on a three-year journey to Mars will impair the mission and safety of the crew. Therefore, NASA must carefully track astronaut’s eyes.

Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) is a non-invasive tool that uses light waves to take cross-section pictures of the retina. While OCT devices have long been used to diagnose, monitor and eventually treat SANS on the International Space Station (ISS), the off-the-shelf models astronauts relied on were not ideal for space travel. The devices were bulky, complicated to use and contained features that weren’t applicable for use during expeditionary missions.

Dr. Kubota and Acucela are working with TRISH and NASA to deliver a flight-ready diagnostic instrument that will replace the current OCT device on the ISS. Their unique Swept Source OCT (SS-OCT) uses a proprietary laser technology. A SS-OCT modulates the wavelength of a laser to achieve greater OCT resolution. So not only will the retinal imaging be better quality, the actual device will be smaller, lighter, more durable, easier- to-use and radiation hardened.

"Acucela has developed a revolutionary, self-operating, portable optical coherence tomography (OCT) device that decentralizes ophthalmic examinations. This advancement allows OCT examinations to be brought to the patient in remote and underserved areas as well as astronauts in deep space missions. The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, partnered with the NASA Human Research Program, is funding Acucela in its efforts to develop this "out-of-this-world" healthcare technology," said Dorit Donoviel, Ph.D., Director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

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Earth Applications for this Technology

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While OCTs are used by ophthalmologists around the globe, Dr. Kubota’s ground-breaking device will allow for retinal imaging and monitoring to be done at home, and in more remote areas where access to medical offices and vision diagnostic equipment is limited. Having better access to OCTs will allow eye care providers to better monitor Age Related Macular Degeneration, Glaucoma and other diseases of the retina, ultimately reducing medical costs and improving the lives of potentially millions of patients.

Dr. Kubota presented Acucela’s work at the NASA Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop for TRISH’s, “Go, Go, Space Gadget,” panel, held Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 at the Galveston Island Convention Center in Galveston, TX. The workshop is held annually for NASA-funded investigators and welcomed more than 1,000 attendees, 600 scientists and 500 presentations. The theme for 2020 was Human Exploration Small Steps Lead to Giant Leaps: Translating Research into Space Exploration.