Baylor’s Donoviel to Lead Space Health Innovation Institute

Houston—Dorit Donoviel, a veteran space health scientist, has officially been named director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine.

Donoviel has been with the institute since its founding in 2016, and had been acting director since last April when Graham Scott, another Baylor scientist, left the position. Donoviel had been deputy chief scientist and industry lead for nine years at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which was formed from a consortium of institutions led by Baylor that were studying health risks related to long-term space flight.

The NSBRI was funded from 1997 to 2017 by NASA’s Human Research Program. Now, the NASA program is funding the TRI for five years, with the potential to extend funding for another seven. Some $246 million has been allocated for the 12 years, funded in six-year increments, Donoviel says. The mission for both institutes is to support innovations that can address health concerns astronauts face while in space, and contribute to improving health care on Earth. “Think of us as the R&D portfolio for NASA,” she says.

TRI is made up of a consortium led by Baylor and includes the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For Donoviel, NASA’s choosing Baylor to lead the space health program a second time is an important vote of confidence for the Houston institution. The decision is an acknowledgement from NASA that “we can do this, we’ve done this before,” she says.  “We have the experience and business know-how and the contacts and reach.”

The TRI has several projects under way, including a partnership with SeeCare, an Intellectual Ventures portfolio company that is developing a medical device that can do a wide-angle eye exam through a wearable headset. This machine would not require the eyes to be dilated, which is the current standard practice.

Dilating eyes can put an astronaut out of commission for a time, and current exams usually take two people to perform. The SeeCare device, which is much smaller and collapsible—ideal for spacecraft where space is at a premium—is designed to send exam images back to Earth to be analyzed.

Keeping a close eye on astronauts’ vision is important because in zero-gravity environments, optic nerves swell, which could lead to blindness. The device could, in turn, expand access to eye exams for people on Earth by making it easier to take images at home and upload them to a doctor via a smartphone.

The institute is working on other medical innovations that benefit both astronauts and those of us who will remain on terra firma, such as maintaining the health of a body’s lymphatic system, which helps to eliminate waste from the body. A lack of gravity could affect this system’s performance, she says. Another area of interest is the gut’s microbiome, and how long-term and confinement in a small space could affect the presence of needed healthy bacteria. The institute is working with MIT on developing a device that might be able to give astronauts a controlled-release dosage of medication that could seed the gut with good bacteria over time, she says.

“The goal is to really fund the audacious science,” Donoviel says.


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