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Why Give | Impact stories

“Smart medicines” and the future of drug delivery

Can researchers in Vancouver and Copenhagen revolutionize the way we treat diseases like cancer and prevent ones like tuberculosis?

Imagine a future in which “smart medicines” can tell the difference between cancer cells and normal cells and can treat rheumatoid arthritis without damaging the liver. Scientists are getting closer to delivering drugs more precisely to their target in the body, according to Professor Urs Häfeli, who leads the UBC-University of Copenhagen Lundbeck Foundation professorship.

With $1.9 million CAD funding from the Lundbeck Foundation, the joint professorship and PhD program at UBC and the University of Copenhagen aims to combine Canada and Denmark’s research strengths in the emerging fields of drug delivery and nanomedicines. Midway through the five-year professorship, Häfeli and his team have already yielded promising results for how diseases are prevented, diagnosed and treated.

Getting drugs exactly to where they’re needed in the body creates fewer side-effects for patients. Cancer treatment in particular is expected to benefit from nanomedicines, and Häfeli says he sees potential for new drug types and delivery techniques to destroy tumors while leaving healthy cells alone.

“Cancer is where we need more precise treatment because we currently can’t bring the drug only to the tumor, and the drugs are toxic to other organs,” says Häfeli. “I believe 20 to 30 years from now we will need less chemotherapy and irradiation.”

Conducting research at the University of Copenhagen, in a city that is a powerhouse for pharmaceutical research, has given Häfeli and his UBC PhD students access to some of the top minds in drug delivery research. In return, his imaging methods are taking the guesswork out of how a drug is being distributed within the body as well as helping his Danish colleagues confirm how new drug candidates are affecting the part of the body they are intended for. The results, Häfeli says, could have implications for a broad range of diseases, from rheumatoid arthritis to diabetes.

While Häfeli has primarily focussed on cancer research, through the joint professorship, he has teamed up with Danish teams to explore the lung delivery of vaccines and antimicrobial drugs. He explains that a challenge for this area is that people with lung diseases, especially lung infections and cystic fibrosis, produce a sticky, viscous mucus that makes it extremely difficult to get drug agents into the depths of the lungs. Imaging is the key to creating effective drug delivery vehicles. “We can easily see with our imaging methods if the drug reaches the target or not, something that most lung delivery people are currently only guessing,” says Häfeli.

Being able to track where a potential vaccine for tuberculosis is going in the lungs, for example, has the team excited about helping to create an effective treatment for the disease, which kills 1.8 million out of ten million infected people every year.

Häfeli adds that advances in drug delivery point to the next chapter of gene therapy, in which targeted therapies and precision medicines will be able to heal hard-to-treat genetic diseases, from cancer to heart disease, from hemophilia to Alzheimer’s disease. Nanomedicines, he says, will play a very big role.