Karen McDonald receives TRISH grant to study just-in-time medications for space exploration

uc davis chemical engineering trish grant karen mcdonald
Professor Karen McDonald with a sample in her lab. Photo: UC Davis

Chemical engineering professor Karen McDonald and her team have received funding to develop plant-based methods for producing FDA-approved drugs in under 24 hours for use in deep space. The proposal, “A Plant-Based Platform for ‘Just in Time’ Medications” is one of six to receive of a two year, $800,000 Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) grant from the Baylor College of Medicine.

The idea is to be able to create drugs on demand, or “just in time,” To do this, McDonald and her team plan to use plants. It’s already possible to use plants to make protein-based pharmaceuticals, but the goal is to find ways to do everything from recombinant DNA introduction to purification of protein in a 24-hour window with the limited resources available on space missions.

“It’s really challenging because I don’t think anyone has done it before,” said McDonald. “But the advantage we have is that the plant is already there and it already has all the bio-synthetic machinery to make proteins. It just doesn’t have the instructions for what we want it to make yet.”

Giving the plants “instructions” is done either through a gene gun, which shoots the DNA into the plant host, or through genetically-modified plant viruses. These viruses, which do not affect humans, are designed to infect the host with genetic material encoding the protein, replicate quickly and produce a lot of the desired protein.

“The plant cells are going to be doing all of the heavy lifting by transcribing and translating those instructions to make the protein,” she explained. The protein is extracted through grinding the plant tissue and then purified so it’s safe for use in humans.

McDonald and her team chose lettuce as their host plant, since it’s ubiquitous and one of the crops that has been successfully grown on the International Space Station. The proposal will focus on creating three different drugs—granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (GCSF) for radiation sickness, parathyroid hormone (PTH) for bone loss in microgravity and an anti-fungal peptide for treating burns and lacerations.

“When you’re going into the unknown like you are on these missions, you have to be ready for everything,” she said. “Technologies that can help you respond quickly to unknown situations are key.”

The methods and technology the team develops will set the table for further research on “just in time” drugs both in space and on earth. McDonald sees the potential for the technology to help treat outbreaks of infectious diseases and combat bioterrorism.

“We’re really excited about this project,” she said. “There’s a lot of fundamental breakthroughs that can come out of it, and these platform technologies will be valuable here on earth, as well as in space.”

McDonald’s UC Davis team includes long-time collaborator Somen Nandi from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Global HealShare® initiative, Mysore Sudarshana from the USDA-ARS and the Department of Plant Pathology, Nancy Lane from the UC Davis School of Medicine and Debashis Paul from the Department of Statistics. Funding begins in April 2020.

TRISH is a virtual institute led by the Baylor College of Medicine and supported by NASA’s Human Research Program. It supports early-stage, high-risk research related to human health in space.

Learn more about TRISH.

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