It sounds like medicine from a futuristic, sci-fi hospital: nanoparticles that deliver drug therapies and cells that can fight cancer or promote organ regeneration. However, by combining engineering and pharmaceutical research, UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University are helping to bring the future of therapeutics a little bit closer to the present day.

Dr. Mike Jay //
Dr. Mike Jay

UNC’s Research Opportunities Initiative (ROI) is a program that seeks to fund “innovative and game-changing research” within the UNC system. The ROI is funded by a $3 million annual appropriation from North Carolina’s General Assembly. The ROI accepts science research proposals from all 17 of UNC’s campuses, and the proposals are judged according to the following  criteria: “game-changing” nature of the research, intellectual merit, and feasibility. North Carolina is one of only a handful of states in the US that is providing this type of research support.

One goal of the ROI is to promote advancements in pharmacoengineering, which is exactly what it sounds like — the intersection of pharmaceutical science and engineering. The term pharmacoengineering was coined at UNC, and these ROI investigators intend to make North Carolina a hub of pharmacoengineering research. In addition to their research initiatives, the team has developed a seminar series to promote discussion of pharmacoengineering topics, and they have plans to set up an international conference to bring the world’s experts to North Carolina to advance this important field.

Generally, the field seeks to improve the mechanics of drug delivery, such as developing drugs that are safer to take or are more efficacious. The focus is usually on common (and fatal) diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, but it can extend to less common diseases as well. Collaboration between pharmaceutical researchers and engineers is essential to the development of novel therapeutics. In addition, collaboration enables cutting-edge academic research to be translated into therapies for patients.

Recently, an ROI grant for pharmacoengineering was awarded to co-principal investigators  Michael Jay, PhD, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Molecular Pharmaceutics at UNC-Chapel Hill and Frances Ligler, D.Phil., D.Sc., Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at NC State. In a project that highlights the close collaboration of their two universities through the UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, these two investigators and their colleagues will undertake an interdisciplinary project examining novel therapeutic techniques. The project will intermix engineering and pharmaceuticals, reflecting the partnership of these two fields.

Dr. Fran Ligler //
Dr. Fran Ligler

The overall project is titled “Pharmacoengineering: Integrating Engineering with Pharmaceutical Sciences to Improve the Delivery of Therapeutic and Diagnostic Agents.” It is divided into two unique parts. The first part, led by Sam Lai, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at UNC, will examine how the immune system responds to engineered nanomaterials. After determining how the immune system adapts to these nanomaterials, the scientists will engineer bispecific fusion proteins that can bind both the nanomaterials and the target cells to deliver the nanomaterials to specific tissues or organs. These nanomaterials have the potential to transport drugs and can be used as a novel form of drug delivery to patients. Specifically, these nanomaterials can be applied to lymphoma and breast cancer treatments.

The second part of the ROI-funded project, led by Shawn Hingtgen, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, focuses on adult stem cell therapies for brain cancer. Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain cancer and one of the deadliest forms of cancer. Genetically engineered stem cells derived from the patient can target and kill cancer cells by delivering anti-cancer gene products directly into cancer cells. However, it is hard for these stem cells to remain effective without some sort of structure to which they can adhere. The proposed experiment will test out a “scaffold” for these cancer-killing stem cells; this scaffolding material is created by Elizabeth Loboa, PhD, Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State. This is a prime example of the synergies that are being realized between these two universities.

Dr. Sam Lai. //
Dr. Sam Lai.

Another related project, led by Ke Cheng, PhD, Associate Professor of Regenerative Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine at NC State, will investigate heart disease, the most prevalent cause of death in western societies. ROI investigators aim to engineer adult stem cells that target damaged heart tissue, allowing for regeneration of heart tissue that would have otherwise remained damaged for the rest of the patient’s life.

The overarching goal of this initiative is to improve

Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, in his lab in Marsico Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo by Dan Sears
Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, in his lab in Marsico Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo by Dan Sears

pharmacoengineering techniques so that patients can access new and effective treatments for life-threatening illnesses. The field of healthcare is under constant change, and as such, it is essential that novel therapeutics are created to keep up with such a swiftly changing landscape. In addition to improving therapeutic techniques, the project will also draw attention to UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State’s impressive research teams and the benefits of collaborative projects  within the state. However, it’s important to note that research takes many years to complete – so while we cannot expect to see these new innovations in the clinic right away, some of the therapeutics could be ready for clinical trials within a few short years.

Dr. Elizabeth Laboa with her students and graduate students in her lab in Engineering. Photo by Marc Hall
Dr. Elizabeth Laboa with her students and graduate students in her lab in Engineering. Photo by Marc Hall

More information can be found here:

Peer edited and reviewed by Suzan Ok and Michelle Engle

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This article was co-published on the TIBBS Bioscience Blog.

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