The grant allows a team to spend the next three years trying to unlock the blood brain barrier to allow drugs to be targeted at diseases including cancer. The £451,000 grant was given by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Drugs already exist that can be successfully used against some diseases elsewhere in the body but when those diseases are in the brain they are much harder to treat because most drugs cannot penetrate the protective barrier.
Dr Eugen Barbu, a chemist, will lead a team of four scientists from the School of Pharmacy aiming to modify a natural polymer so it can temporarily create an opening in the blood brain barrier and get through to deliver medicine. They will use polymer-based nanoparticles that are approximately 1/1000 of the diameter of a single human hair, which is about 80,000 nanometres wide.
The modified polymer would be small enough to breach the blood brain barrier and would act like a delivery container carrying the drug. Once they deliver their drug load to the brain they would biodegrade. A novel living 3D cell culture model of the human blood-brain barrier will be used to initially screen the interaction between the nanoparticles and the brain.
The research team chose to study natural polymers because they make excellent drug-carriers, are non-toxic and are biodegradable and biocompatible, so the brain won’t reject them.
Prof Darek Gorecki will be working alongside Dr Barbu. He said: “The BBSRC thought it was worth investing half a million pounds because though other scientists are studying ways of penetrating the blood brain barrier this idea of using modified natural polymers is novel.
“It is very experimental at this stage and the distance from here to doctors being able to better treat brain tumours is a long way off.
“The brain relies upon a rich blood supply but the barrier exists because it is vital not everything in the blood can get through. It is a very sophisticated filter. We are hoping that by using modified polymers working in various ways we can generate a temporary opening in the cells of the blood brain barrier and allow drugs to be delivered straight to the brain.”
If successful, the temporary unlocking of the filter would allow a range of brain diseases to be treated more efficiently. It is hoped that in the long term these formulations will be useful for the treatment of a range of brain diseases including brain tumours, stroke and neurodegenerative disorders.
The research group comprises a multidisciplinary team of Dr Barbu, senior research fellow, Dr John Tsibouklis, reader in polymer science, Professor Geoffrey Pilkington, a professor of cellular and molecular neuro-oncology and world-renowned expert in brain tumour biology and pathology, and Prof Gorecki, professor of molecular medicine. The team work in the Institute of Biomedical and Biomolecular Science, Biomaterials and Bionanotechnology and Cellular and Molecular Medicine Groups at the university, and will be supported by two post-doctoral researchers.
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