Friday, Aug. 6, 1999
Aerospace experts, government
and industry leaders, and university researchers and doctors from across the country are
joining for the first time to launch a new NASA commercial space center that will change
the way health care is delivered in space and on earth.
The new center, known as the Medical Informatics and Technology Applications Consortium
(MITAC), was established at Virginia Commonwealth University to explore new technologies
that can be used to deliver health care in remote and extreme environments and on future
space missions. MITAC board members will meet for the first time on Aug. 9 and 10 at VCU
to discuss and approve the upcoming year’s program. Representatives from NASA’s
Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., also
will attend MITAC’s first board meeting.
"We want to enable NASA to deliver health care in extended space flight,"
said Ronald C. Merrell, M.D., F.A.C.S., MITAC director and chairman of VCU’s
Department of Surgery. "No astronaut should suffer from a medical condition that
would be readily treated on earth. This technology would enable doctors on earth to
embrace a very distant environment with their expertise and manage a medical situation
MITAC serves as the telemedicine hub for the United States as part of the eight
industrialized nations’ efforts to establish telemedicine on a global scale. The
program originally was established between NASA and the Yale University School of Medicine
in 1997 under the direction of Merrell, then chairman of Yale’s Department of
Surgery. This summer, MITAC moved to Richmond when Merrell became chairman of VCU’s
MITAC researchers already are evaluating emerging technologies that will provide
health-care access to remote areas of the world and on future exploration missions in
space. For example, Yale researchers tested small pills that measure core body temperature
and pulse, one of which was used to monitor Sen. John Glenn during his 1998 return to
MITAC will continue to develop and evaluate non-invasive medical technology including
virtual reality instruments, robotics and various kinds of sensor-embedded clothing. Some
of these devices were used to monitor climbers on Mt. Everest during a scientific
expedition this past May.
MITAC also has established an Experimental Telemedicine Laboratory at VCU which links
doctors from VCU and other academic medical centers to health-care providers in various
remote sites such as Brazil, Ecuador, Greece, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine and other former
Soviet Republics. Using this technology, VCU physicians recently helped provide second
opinions for some of those injured during the conflict in Kosovo. In addition, a
multimedia laboratory has been created to explore and evaluate 3-D visualization for
medical images and develop Web-based teaching and distance learning technologies for
clinical consultations and curriculum development.
Some of the technology that already is being tested on earth will eventually give
doctors a way to support medical care on human NASA missions to planets such as Mars. In
the future, extended space flight will require advanced technologies to support autonomous
missions. MITAC researchers hope to provide astronauts with a link to doctors on earth and
new devices that will enable them to diagnose and treat various health problems while in
Funded by NASA with matching dollars from commercial investors, MITAC is led by a board
of directors chaired by Merrell. Members of the board include a former astronaut, now an
administrator with SPACEHAB, and representatives from Yale University, University of
Maryland’s East-West Space Science Center, Stanford University, VCU’s School of
Engineering, the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park and Tyco-United States Surgical
MITAC will facilitate the movement of new technology to commercial production through
its affiliation with the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. The consortium also will
assist NASA in attracting industrial investment in MITAC’s technology.
"Our consortium is committed to getting new ideas out to the U.S. economy and will
serve as the conduit for the technology surrounding NASA," said Merrell.