In its print and TV ads, the pharmaceutical industry describes how "smart" drugs of the future will target cancer and disease, leaving healthy cells untouched. A recent breakthrough at the University of Missouri-Columbia could redefine this "smart" drug concept. (PNAS-2002)
University of Missouri-Columbia
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In its print and TV ads, the pharmaceutical industry uses archery and billiards metaphorically to describe how "smart" drugs of the future will target cancer and disease, leaving healthy cells untouched. Although these drugs are years away, a recent breakthrough at the University of Missouri-Columbia could redefine the concept of "smart" drugs and revolutionize their delivery.
According to Jerry Atwood, curators' professor of chemistry and department chairman, a "nanocapsule" developed in his lab has the potential to change how medicine is delivered within the body. The work was featured earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
"When drug companies refer to 'smart' drugs, they're talking about drugs that have specific chemical receptors and only bind to specific cells," said Atwood, who has conducted nanotechnology research for more than a decade. "It's this receptor that makes the drug 'smart,' allowing it to target the cancer or disease."
The challenge with such drugs is that a receptor simply can't be attached to an existing drug, he said. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent perfecting a drug's chemical structure so that it does its job safely and effectively. If just one aspect of that structure is changed, it either doesn't work or has negative side effects. Because of this, companies must start from scratch when designing "smart" drugs.
"Our nanocapsules now provide a way to get over that hurdle," Atwood said. "We can attach the receptor to the exterior of the nanocapsule and place the drug inside, leaving its structure unchanged. The capsule then delivers the drug to the specific destination, where it's released to do its job."
Beyond the ability to deliver existing drugs to their target, Atwood said nanocapsules would allow for as much as a 10,000-fold decrease in drug dosages, reducing the harmful side effects of drugs such as chemotherapy. In addition, he believes his nanocapsules will open a new arena in pharmaceuticals.
"Quite often, the reason drugs don't make it to market is because they have too many unwanted side effects," he said. "Now, if you place that same drug inside a nanocapsule and deliver it directly to its intended target in a reduced dosage, you might eliminate those side effects, or at least reduce them to an acceptable level. The result is that instead of gathering dust on a shelf in some pharmaceutical company's lab, now those drugs can fight cancer, disease and disorders."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Atwood's photo and a graphic representation of his "nanocapsule" is available online at http://www.missouri.edu/~news/pictures/nanocapsule.html.
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