Published: May 1, 2020 By

Researchers exploring ways to make drug delivery safer and more effective 

By looking at health problems through an engineering lens, CU Engineering researchers are creating ways to make drug therapy delivery safer and more effective. By working across departments, disciplines and research units, our engineers are innovating solutions for the world’s health challenges. 

Associate Dean for Research Massimo Ruzzene said these new delivery systems and techniques are just a few of the ways students and faculty are changing how patient treatment occurs “at every level.” 

“These outstanding results are great examples of how the combined expertise of our college—coupled with partners across campus, the nation and the world—are drastically impacting this important area of medicine.” 

Light-activated polymers for blood biostasis

Storing and transporting critical organic materia—including donated organs, blood and vaccines—requires a complex logistical “cold chain” of refrigeration. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Army Research Office are investing more than $7 million into the research of Professors Kristi Anseth and Chris Bowman of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Sabrina Spencer of biochemistry to meet this challenge. 

If this approach is successful, we would enable better potential treatment of disease, infections or traumatic wounds where buying time could be beneficial. 

Anseth, Bowman and Spencer are working on a method of injecting biological material such as blood with specialty light-activated molecules. When exposed to one type of light, these molecules gel and fill blood cells to prevent their degradation. This creates a biostasis that can be reversed when exposed to a second type of colored light. 

“If this approach is successful, we would enable better potential treatment of disease, infections or traumatic wounds where buying time could be beneficial.” Bowman said. 

Breaking the vaccine cold chain

Other researchers are exploring another method to break the cold chain, specifically for vaccines. Professor Robert Garcea of the BioFrontiers Institute and Professor Theodore Randolph of chemical and biological engineering are combining extant particle atomic layer deposition technology – developed by their colleague Professor Al Weimer – with new thermostabilization techniques to create vaccine formulations that do not require refrigeration. They recently received $1.2 million in grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

They have stabilized vaccine formulations for anthrax, botulinum toxin, ricin and, most recently, the Ebola virus. By creating vaccines with this unique thermal stability characteristic, the researchers hope to provide solutions to supply chain problems in war, cases of bioterrorism and remote, rural health care. 

Microbubbles deliver therapies

Alec Thomas began his research into biomaterial that can be formed into microscopic bubbles while he was a PhD student studying under Associate Professor Mark Borden of the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering. Since earning his PhD, he has continued that research at Oxford University. 

When injected with a blood clotting agent, Thomas’ magnetically controlled microbubbles provide a noninvasive method to deliver their payload to a trauma site, halting internal bleeding. 

The method can eliminate the need for surgery in certain situations. It also creates a contrast easy to spot on an ultrasound, which helps medical professionals see and understand what is happening at the trauma site. 

Fluid dynamics in aerospace may lead to breakthroughs in drug delivery

Research Professor Jim Brasseur of the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences is working to apply the mechanical principles of fluid flow and molecular transport that underlie rocket science to the release and delivery of drug molecules – particularly biologics like insulin. 

Brasseur is leveraging his expertise in both aerodynamics and gastrointestinal physiology to analyze the transport and absorption of these drug molecules. 

“The release, transport and absorption of drug molecules is essentially a mathematical mechanics problem,” Brasseur said. 

Many biological molecules are too large to pass across the barrier of intestinal lining and must be taken intravenously. Overcoming this obstacle by developing an orally administered tablet is considered by some researchers to be the holy grail of this field of research.