N. TX cancer survivor helping in study of astronauts, vision loss

By Lori Brown

As the country looks back on the first steps on the moon 46 years ago on Monday, a North Texas brain cancer survivor is preparing to help researchers learn why some astronauts are losing their vision.

There are about 100 cancer survivors in the country who have something called an Ommaya port in their brain.

It was put in to deliver chemo, and now that same port can be used to study pressure in the brain of patients willing to become weightless.        
Researchers are closely studying astronaut Scott Kelly, though they can't study what's going on inside his brain.

That’s where people like Dallas resident Trent Barton, a study participant, come in.

Barton was born the same year that Neil Armstrong took that one giant leap.

Growing up in Orlando, he, like many boys dreamed of being an astronaut as a child.

He later put those dreams aside. Then, in 2013, he came under attack by an aggressive form of cancer.

“I went from 180 pounds down to 117,” said Barton. “…They take you to the edge of death."

Now he's willing to go to a different kind of edge; this time, in a plane.

“The plane is going up in the air, throwing people up and then accelerating down as they’re floating inside the plane,” said Dr. Ben D. Levine with the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Science. 

To fight Barton's cancer, doctors put a special probe called an Ommaya port, creating what amounts to a window into his brain.

The port can allow researchers to study the effect of weightlessness on vision.

“Astronauts on the International Space Station are losing their vision,” said Dr. Ben D. Levine with the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Science. “And some of them are actually losing visual fields.” 

Dr. Levine, in partnership with Texas Health Resources and UT Southwestern, is heading up the study.

The first flight last year turned what some scientists knew on its head, raising confidence that a fix for the vision problem is within reach.

Blaine Porter was one of four participating cancer survivors on that flight.

“Start at the top, go to a dive, go the top,” he said. “And he says they want to do that 40 times!"

The flight lasted three hours and Porter doesn't like roller coasters.
“Jesus tells us to love our neighbor,” he said. “And so that is the main reason."

For Barton, it's a chance for a childhood dream to come true.

“As soon as my son comes in, I'll say, ‘Hey, you're talking to a junior astronaut now.’” 
Researchers are hoping to find two more women with Ommaya ports for the study, but the deadline is this Friday.

The study could have earthly applications, too for people who suffer from a condition that causes headaches and vision loss.