Center for Space Medicine

Pivoting in a Pandemic: Redirecting Space Health Research for COVID-19


The growing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shutdown of research laboratories throughout the nation. The notable exception: researchers actively working on COVID-19 related research. To address the hiatus in laboratory work, TRISH leadership opted to pivot a subset of its projects to meet the pressing needs of the pandemic.

Luckily, several projects were already solving for just-in-time diagnostics, therapeutics, and medical training in response to a novel agent or threat. Hence, by shifting specific focus to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, proof-of-concept for spaceflight applications was still achieved while also meeting an urgent need for earth. 

Working with NASA, TRISH nimbly shifted approximately $1M in funding for supplements to existing space health projects that could easily pivot to also include COVID-19 related work. TRISH either allowed pivots in research at no additional cost to the Institute, or provided modest project supplements to advance the following: 

  • Medical procedure training tools relevant to COVID
  • Remote patient surveillance
  • Innovative diagnostics
  • Therapeutics
  • Vaccines to the SARS-CoV-2 virus

In total, TRISH facilitated the pivot of nine projects, which supported the work of 10 researchers at five universities, three companies and one NASA center. TRISH’s investment resulted in five innovative therapeutic and four new diagnostic COVID approaches, as well as four new COVID treatment training modules for physicians. Researchers published 13 scientific papers describing this work. 

Nucleic Acid Therapy Platform for Real-Time Countermeasures During Spaceflight Missions
PI: Anushree Chatterjee, Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder

Dr. Chatterjee was developing a potential radiation countermeasure using her Facile Accelerated Specific Therapeutic (FAST) platform. In response to the novel coronavirus, Dr. Chatterjee and her team utilized the FAST platform to develop an accelerated, specific, and safe detection of SARS- CoV-2 viral RNA as well as create a Forester Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET) based optical readout. This diagnostic toolkit presents several advantages over current qPCR approaches including detection at lower amounts of viral RNA, faster readout, safety in handling patient samples, fewer reagents, and lower cost. In addition to this diagnostic capability, Dr. Chatterjee was also able to design rapid therapeutics using the same platform.

miRNA Signature Detection and Countermeasures Against HZE Radiation Exposure for Tissue Degeneration
PI: Afshin Beheshti, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center

Dr. Beheshti and his interdisciplinary team of over 50 researchers quickly generated preliminary systems biology data that identified several mechanisms associated with COVID-19 infection and propagation, mostly related to mitochondrial suppression. Notably, the team also may have identified a miRNA signature associated with COVID-19 infections which could serve as a novel therapeutic or vaccine target. Dr. Beheshti’s TRISH supplement was leveraged to obtain other funding to further identify and develop novel COVID-19 therapeutic targets.

Space-based Paper Microfluidic Vertical Flow Assay for Rapid Multiplex Diagnostics (VFD) in COVID-19 Pandemic Response and Recovery
PI: Frederic Zenhausern, Ph.D., University of Arizona

Dr. Zenhausern will combine his project’s protein-based “microfluidic vertical flow assay” with additional RNA capabilities to create a unique diagnostic tool specific to COVID-19 RNA and antibodies. In record time from date of funding, Dr. Zenhausern published several manuscripts of this work.

Conditional Guide RNAs: Toward Tissue-Selective Gene Modulation for Extended-Duration Space Missions
PI: Niles Pierce, Ph.D., California Institute of Technology

Dr. Niles Pierce, Ph.D., of California Institute of Technology, shifted his team’s research and is developing an at home diagnostic test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus using hybridization chain reaction (HCR).

A Plant-Based Platform for "Just in Time" Medications
PI: Karen McDonald, Ph.D., University of California, Davis

Dr. McDonald is using her technology that efficiently expresses proteins in lettuce to produce and purify the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein which is used in vaccine development.

Virtual Human Simulation Framework
PI: Erik Funkhouser, Level Ex, Inc.

Level Ex, Inc. developed a game-based medical procedure practice tool that is currently used by thousands of physicians across the world. Additional modest funds from TRISH enabled the company to expand upon their existing Airway Ex and Cardio Ex modules to incorporate relevant best practices for COVID-19 treatment. The Level Ex team also added demonstrations for minimizing the risk of aerosol generation during intubation to the Airway Ex module in order to protect healthcare professionals from exposure. The company’s Cardio Ex module was updated with COVID- 19 cardiac symptoms to enable physicians to recognize concurrent diseases and potential complications from COVID-19 infection.

Non-contact Sleep, Vitals, and Behavior Sensing
PI: Dina Katabi, Ph.D., Emerald Innovations, Inc

Dr. Katabi has developed a non-wearable monitoring device that could potentially identify health changes during spaceflight. With additional TRISH funding, principal investigator Dina Katabi, Ph.D., utilized the device to remotely monitor confirmed COVID-19 patients in a nursing home, a particularly vulnerable population, for changes in physiological metrics. This data could provide primary care physicians with faster information to identify, diagnose, and treat at-risk patients and to monitor their convalescence. This technology will also minimize contact of caregivers with infectious patients.

Synthetic Ingestible Microrobot for Anti-Radiation Drug Delivery
PI: Wei Gao, Ph.D., California Institute of Technology

Dr. Gao is developing a low-cost, portable telemedicine platform for detection and monitoring of SARS-CoV-2. The aim of the tool, the SARS-CoV-2 RapidPlex, is to track infection progression to enable more efficient triage of patients into clear categories of infectious, vulnerable, or immune state.

Medical Data Acquisition and Handling in Commercial Spaceflight
PI: Anil Menon, M.D., M.S., M.P.H., Space Exploration Technologies

Dr. Menon executed a COVID-19 surveillance study among SpaceX employees examining the relationship between antibody titers and functional antibody activity to SARS-CoV-2 over time. This project enabled Dr. Menon to establish the infrastructure for human research within SpaceX which led to the opportunity to offer a collaboration to TRISH for human spaceflight research on private commercial space participants.

Most of these technologies are currently still being verified for accuracy and comparison to gold standard measurements. Level Ex’s software, Pulm Ex, is currently available on application platforms for download by any care provider to supplement COVID-19 training. 

By responding with agility, TRISH researchers were able to re-focus the work initially intended to keep astronauts safe, to help understand a virus that turned into a worldwide crisis.