Guest column

Houston can stay the Space City within medical and health innovation

If Houston wants to maintain its title as Space City, it needs to channel the innovation of its history as space exploration moves forward. Pexels

Space has captured the imagination of mankind since we first looked up at the night sky. We've reached out to touch the stars, and now endeavor to inhabit them.

Earlier this month, a prominent collection of experts on space health attended the first Space Health Innovation Conference co-hosted by the University of California, San Francisco, and Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

As NASA eyes a return to the moon with the Artemis Program, attendees of the Space Health Innovation Conference advanced a national discussion of human space exploration by seeking to manage the many health risks associated with humans during space flight. The event included NASA leadership, innovative companies, commercial space vendors, as well as leaders from the space health and life sciences communities.

The conference's goal is to inform, inspire and invite participation in the exciting challenge of optimizing health and medical management in space environments.

With its headquarters in Houston, TRISH partnered with the Human Research Program at Johnson Space Center to source and seed the best emerging health technologies to support NASA's space exploration. TRISH is based out of the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and is a consortium that includes the rich space pedigree of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. The Space Health Innovation Conference is the result of a grant by TRISH to UCSF. TRISH has also hosted Space Health focused events at the MIT Media lab and at Caltech.

TRISH's main charge is finding disruptive health technologies and new scientists to fuel the US Space Program. TRISH explores emerging areas of science that support health and human performance in the harsh environment of microgravity and high radiation. TRISH funds novel research in artificial intelligence, omics, human computer interfaces, behavioral health and beyond. Projects all share one goal: predicting and protecting future Mars explorers. And NASA leadership encourages TRISH to take the risks that could mean huge leaps forward.

Innovation and risk tolerance are hallmarks of Houston and its rich history. From the city's humble origins, to Jesse Jones's national financial leadership, to the building of the Houston Ship Channel, and to the explosion of the energy industry, Houston has always dared to leap forward. President John F. Kennedy's iconic speech entitled "Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort" declared the US ambition to embrace the new frontier of space and conquer the moon. Humble Oil donated the 1,620 acres for JSC to Rice University, who then sold the land to NASA for $20. (Humble Oil would later become Exxon Mobil.)

JSC housed flight control, space flight training, and the NASA Astronaut Corps. JSC gave Houston the nickname "Space City", which led to the naming of the local NBA team to be the Rockets and the local MLB team to be the Astros. JSC's support for the astronaut corps began with the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, which evaluated the Apollo astronauts upon return to Earth. And the Christopher C Kraft Mission Control facility has directed all crewed space flights since the early Gemini program. An American flag flies atop Mission Control at JSC every day that an American is in space. That flag has flown continuously since November 2, 2000.

Nearly two decades since Bill Shepherd first boarded the International Space Station, the conversation around supporting human health and performance in space continues. And Houston will continue to lead the way for all our sakes, in space and on terra firma.

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James Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer at Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

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Building Houston

 
 

Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his company's, early disease screening, COVID-19 testing, and more. Photo courtesy of imaware

A family illness got Jani Tuomi thinking — why does treatment of chronic conditions seem like too little, too late? When his brother fell ill, he wondered if more could have been done preemptively.

"The doctors were really good at treating him — but the question I had was why couldn't we have screened for this in advance," Tuomi says on this week's episode if the Houston Innovators Podcast.

He entertained his intuition and started researching, which transitioned into co-founding imaware, a digital health platform that focuses on early identification of chronic conditions — such as diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune issues. What Tuomi and his team found was that these chronic diseases come with biomarkers you can measure before you see symptoms.

Now, imaware exists to provide at-home blood tests for everything from heart health and allergies to thyroid and arthritis screening. And, as COVID-19 was emerging as an international threat across January and February, Tuomi says his team quickly jumped on a way to provide at-home coronavirus testing.

"Right away there was an amazing reception," Tuomi says, adding that big companies were looking to provide their employees on-site training. "There was way more need for testing than supply was available."

Imaware formed strategic partnerships with other Texas companies, including Austin-based startup Wheel — the telemedicine partner. Basically, users take a quick assessment online and if they are high risk, a health care worker is deployed to the patient's site to conduct the test. Once finished, the lab analyzes the sample and telemedicine professionals reach out with results and next steps.

Business for imaware has been booming, and Tuomi has had to scale his business virtually amid the pandemic. Imaware also has an office in Austin, which is focused on the digital side of business.

Looking forward, Tuomi says he's planning on zooming in on the various ways patients were affected by COVID-19, and this summer imaware formed a partnership with Texas A&M University researchers to begin that investigation. Tuomi says he doesn't expect the finalized data until early next year, but what he says the research seems to show is people reacted differently to the disease, and those reactions seem to relate to underlying or chronic conditions — the same conditions imaware has developed early testing for.

"Before COVID, imaware's mission was to identify individuals with chronic conditions earlier, so we're going to double down on our tests," Tuomi says.

Tuomi shares more about the lessons learned from turning around the COVID test so quickly, as well as some of the ways the pandemic has affected the health care industry as a whole. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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