NASA Funds Research to Improve Health of Astronauts

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA is funding a pair of research and development (R&D) projects by Sachi Bioworks and Soterix Medical aimed at improving the health of astronauts flying to the International Space Station and on deep-space missions.

Each company received a Phase II award worth up to $750,000 under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. NASA previously provided smaller Phase I awards for the companies to begin R&D work.

Sachi Bioworks, which is located in Boulder, Colo., is working on pharmaceutical counter measures to protect astronauts on deep space missions from the harmful effects of radiation, which include the suppression of the immune system.

“Sachi is teaming with Space Tango (and Sierra Space) for development and deployment of ‘on-the-fly’ and ‘GMP-in-a-box’ module, for therapeutic manufacturing and testing in space. Sachi and Space Tango are currently fundraising for the proposed space-based manufacturing and drug-screening (joint federal grants, and exploring joint company formation and dilutive fundraising efforts to launch the project). When funded, two spaceflight missions and therapeutic manufacturing at ISS is planned within 24-36 months,” the company said in its proposal summary.

Soterix Medical is developing a spatial disorientation simulator that can be used to improve the training of astronauts.

“Upon successful completion of Phase-2, we will have validated our device for inducing spatial disorientation using a range of simulated operational tasks. We envision our technology being used by NASA JSC to train all crew-members. In the future, there is potential for NASA to use the same technology to treat space sickness,” the proposal summary said.

 “We have begun discussions with private space companies on incorporating our technology. In addition, technology can be used as a countermeasure for space sickness. Further commercial applications include medical (e.g. correction of balance impairment in Traumatic Brain Injury) and virtual / augmented reality in training and entertainment,” the summary added.

Summaries of the projects follow.   

Reversing Immune Dysregulation During Spaceflight Missions
Subtopic: Radioprotectors and Mitigators of Space Radiation-Induced Health Risks

Sachi Bioworks
Boulder, Colo.

Principal Investigator: Prashant Nagpal

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 6

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

Our proposed work will result in pre-clinical and animal model testing and translation of two radiation countermeasures developed during NASA SBIR Phase I, for deployment in deep-space missions. During Phase I SBIR, we developed, tested and validated these radiation countermeasures for:

1) reversal of immune dysregulation (immunosuppression) caused due to radiation, tested in vitro using human donor derived peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) as a screening method;

2) validation at a cellular level shown with increase in Tregulatory (Treg) cells reversing the immunosuppressive and radiation-induced ARS; and

3) in vivo testing and validation using an animal (mice) radiation model, showing reversal of immunosuppression in lungs by administration of EPO activating Nanoligomers, to reduce potential development of carcinogenesis.

Additionally, we also showed reversal of radiation-induced neurodegeneration caused by neuroinflammation in brain, using transcriptional downregulation of intraperitoneally administered GM-CSF downregulator. These two therapeutics were developed using our proprietary Sachi platform for high-throughput, rapid, and targeted gene expression manipulation (reversible) of immune and other hematopoietic proteins, to utilize our own body to create these protective enzymes to counter and repair the damage caused by deep space radiation.

Our work in Phase II SBIR will:

1) provide pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic (PK/PD) and biodistribution data with 2 different routes of administration (intraperitoneal IP and intranasal IN);

2) determine dosing and dose frequency to obtain optimal therapeutic effect for reversing radiation- and microgravity-induced immune dysfunction; and

3) conduct small (mice) and large animal (dogs) safety, toxicity, and maximum tolerable dose studies (IND-enabling studies), for translating the developed therapeutic into human clinical trials and filling for FDA-approval for clinical investigations.

Potential NASA Applications

Sachi is teaming with Space Tango (and Sierra Space) for development and deployment of “on-the-fly” and “GMP-in-a-box” module, for therapeutic manufacturing and testing in space. Sachi and Space Tango are currently fundraising for the proposed space-based manufacturing and drug-screening (joint federal grants, and exploring joint company formation and dilutive fundraising efforts to launch the project). When funded, two spaceflight missions and therapeutic manufacturing at ISS is planned within 24-36 months.

Potential NASA Applications

The space-based therapeutic screening can potentially accelerate drug-development for diseases such as neurodegeneration, cardiovascular, and cancer, by leveraging the accelerated disease progression due to microgravity and radiation. Commercialization objective also include translating the molecules developed here as combination therapy for cancer radiotherapy patients, to improve outcomes.

Advancing and Validating Galvanic Induced Disorientation Simulation Trainer (GIST)
Subtopic: Portable Spatial Disorientation Simulator – Trainer

Soterix Medical, Inc.
New York, NY

Principal Investigator: Abhishek Datta

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 7

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

We developed a functional laboratory disorientation trainer prototype. The end deliverable is a system that astronauts will regularly use to simulate landing and recovery type tasks and that is used to develop sensorimotor standards to gage suitability to perform tasks. We adapted an existing portable constant current stimulation design (that incorporates an in-built IMU) into a first functional version of a galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS) disorientation trainer that fully meets the stated deliverables of the solicitation.

The early prototype was single channel, wirelessly charged, had data logging capability, ~5 hour run time, 1 mA current limit, and provided full control via a bluetooth connected smartphone app. We adapted it into a 2 channel version to allow simulating pitch and roll tilt, increase current limit to 5 mA and related voltage compliance, provide option for user-adjustable manual gain, emergency on-off switch, incorporate user-switchable rechargeable batteries, and external /manual event triggering. Phase-1 established a laboratory version of the disorientation trainer culminating in pilot testing with 3 participants.

Potential NASA Applications

Upon successful completion of Phase-2, we will have validated our device for inducing spatial disorientation using a range of simulated operational tasks. We envision our technology being used by NASA JSC to train all crew-members. In the future, there is potential for NASA to use the same technology to treat space sickness.                         

Potential Non-NASA Applications

We have begun discussions with private space companies on incorporating our technology. In addition, technology can be used as a countermeasure for space sickness. Further commercial applications include medical (e.g. correction of balance impairment in Traumatic Brain Injury) and virtual / augmented reality in training and entertainment.