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New NASA-VCU Consortium will plan health care delivery for space

VCU’s Commercial Space Center to Host First Meeting of Telemedicine and Aerospace Experts

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 there."

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 surgery department.

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 space.

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 space.

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 Corp.

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.