A University of Alberta researcher is thinking small to find innovative ways to improve the delivery of drugs that can be more easily administered with fewer side-effects.
Afsaneh Lavasanifar, a professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, has developed and patented a polymer platform technology that can carry drugs to specific areas of the body at a nanoscopic scale. The polymeric nanostructures contain an outer shell and inner core that are capable of encapsulating drugs that the body normally has a hard time absorbing and processing.
"Making drugs water soluble is a major problem in drug development," Lavasanifar says. "When drugs are not water soluble, they cannot be absorbed efficiently by the body or administered efficiently, making them ineffective."
Lavasanifar developed the polymer over three years and published her initial findings in 2006. With support from TEC Edmonton, in 2010 she launched her own company, Meros Polymers, and currently serves as vice-president and chief science officer.
The company secured a U.S. patent for the polymer late last year, with patents pending in Europe and Japan, and was recently named a semifinalist in the fast-growth category of the TEC VenturePrize.
Targeted drug delivery
In addition to solving water insolubility, the polymer could be used to target delivery of drugs in specific areas of the body. Much of Lavasanifar's research has focused on the targeted delivery of chemotherapy drugs, some of which can be harmful to organs such as the heart or kidneys.
"We can change the normal distribution of the anti-cancer drug in the body and get the drug into the tumour and away from the site where it causes toxicity," she says.
A polymer within this platform that shows unique thermo-reactive properties—it's liquid at room temperature but turns into a gel when warmed to body temperature—has potential applications for eye-drop drugs, antibiotics or antipsychotics—reducing the need for repeat doses or costly administration by a health professional.
A third structure within this family also has potential as a delivery system for small interfering RNA technology, or siRNA, which allows scientists to heat and silence specific genes in a cell. The siRNA technology has not yet been used as a therapeutic agent because it breaks down in the body and has a hard time entering cells.
Lavasanifar is working with other researchers on using the polymer to deliver siRNA in lab models. "Our long-term plan is to see if we can get it into clinical trials and use it for siRNA delivery in humans," she says.
Meros is working with Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures to evaluate the toxicity of the polymer, a step needed for regulatory approval. Lavasanifar is confident about the results, noting the "backbone" of the polymer has been used in absorbable sutures for many years.
Moving from lab bench to boardroom was a new experience for Lavasanifar, but she credits TEC Edmonton and her colleagues at Meros for providing invaluable expertise, especially early on. The university and pharmacy faculty have been tremendously supportive of her work, she adds.
"Without the U of A's support and funding from granting agencies, I would not be able to put my ideas into action."