To infinity and beyond

To infinity and beyond

UF researchers land federal award to launch space-age medical beverage

By Megan Donoghue

Led by Dr. Sadasivan Vidyasagar (center), a team of UF Shands Cancer Center researchers developed a drink for cancer patients, which they are now tweaking for use in space. The team is shown here with Dr. Paul Okunieff (right), director of the UF Shands Cancer Center./Photo by Jesse S. Jones

University of Florida researcher Sadasivan Vidyasagar, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues had little idea of the “out-of-this-world” potential of their nutritional drink Enterade when they developed it to help cancer patients better absorb food nutrients.

But now, with a $100,000 award from the National Space and Biomedical Research Institute, Vidyasagar and his team are tweaking the formula to help astronauts combat space radiation.

Originally developed to heal the intestinal tracts of cancer patients who have undergone tissue-damaging radiation therapy, Enterade eliminates poorly absorbed amino acids and is effective in helping patients get the nutrition they need while reducing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Like some cancer patients, astronauts in space are exposed to significant amounts of radiation, although in smaller amounts spread across longer periods. Even though the dosage of radiation is different, the cumulative damage to the gastrointestinal tract is similar and leads to the same unpleasant symptoms and health effects.

“If the drink satisfies all the conditions NSBRI is looking for, they will use it for future space missions,” Vidyasagar said. “They already have a drug that they use to reduce nausea and vomiting, so we have to see if the drink we are making is superior to that. Enterade is a food, not a drug, and if we can achieve something better than a drug using food then we have made a major advance.”

Enterade could be used during long space travels, including the first human mission to Mars, where radiation levels will be much higher, as will the risk of getting sick.

The grant will allow researchers to further study how to mitigate nausea and vomiting as well as the effects proton radiation has on digestive health and function. Proton radiation is the main form of radiation found in space. Findings will be used to enhance the Enterade formula to meet the nutritional needs of astronauts exposed to space radiation. Packaging of the formula also will be adjusted to make the product easier to transport during space flight.

Enterade made its debut for cancer patients here on Earth as an unflavored medical beverage sold online to cancer physicians and their patients in July.

“The hypothesis and careful science behind Dr. Vidyasagar’s discovery have implications for both radiation and chemotherapy-related bowel symptoms, and have future applications for inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease,” said Paul Okunieff, M.D., a professor and chair of the UF College of Medicine department of radiation oncology and director of the UF Shands Cancer Center. “Who knew that a simple dietary supplement might outperform complex, expensive and sometimes toxic drugs and procedures?”