Lettuce in Space Could Protect Astronauts' Bones

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Genetically modified lettuce could be the answer to astronauts losing bone density during extended spaceflight.

Astronauts might one day grow and eat genetically modified plants to ward off diseases associated with long spaceflights, new research shows.

Researchers have developed a transgenic, or genetically modified, lettuce that produces a drug to protect against bone density loss in microgravity.

Our bones are constantly balanced between growth and resorption, allowing bones to respond to injury or changes in exercise. Spending time in microgravity disrupts this balance, tipping bones towards resorption, so astronauts lose bone mass. This can be treated with a drug called parathyroid hormone, or PTH, but it requires regular injections.

The new lettuce expresses a fusion protein combining PTH with part of a human antibody protein. The fusion protein is designed to be stable in the bloodstream and to allow astronauts to potentially purify the drug from plant extracts, says Somen Nandi, adjunct professor in the chemical engineering department at the University of California, Davis.

Nandi and colleagues are evaluating the plants for how much of the drug they can produce, which leaves contain the most product, and the best time to harvest the leaves.

Growing plants in space has multiple benefits, Nandi says. A mission to Mars might take several years to complete. Experience from the International Space Station shows that being able to grow some food in addition to pre-packaged meals is a big morale booster for astronauts, he says.

Long spaceflights also require supplies of medicines, such as PTH. But conventional medicines would expire on the way, so astronauts need ways to replenish supplies. By carrying medicines in the form of transgenic plant seeds, astronauts can both save weight and potentially have a new source of fresh drugs, Nandi says.

Ideally, the drug would be in an orally available form, so that astronauts could dose themselves with PTH by eating lettuce leaves. But if that turns out not to work, they should still be able to extract and purify the drug from the plants.

Nandi and colleagues, including Karen McDonald, professor in the chemical engineering department, and graduate student Kevin Yates, presented the work this week at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society.

NASA funded the work.

This article was originally published in Futurity. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.