Collaborative project on effective drug delivery by nanotechnology receives $1m Government grant


From left to right: Dr Tinte Itinteang, Dr Swee Tan, Dr Eng Tan, Sean Mackay, and Dr Paul Davis

The Gillies McIndoe Research Institute (GMRI) is helping to develop a smart drug delivery system that will see medications delivered directly through the skin rather than in pill form or as an injection.

The GMRI is working collaboratively with researchers at the University of Otago on a project to develop the process, which will be funded by a $1m grant over three years from the Government’s Endeavour Fund.

The project is being led by Dr Eng Tan, an Organic and Bioorganic Chemist and Research Scientist, and Mr Sean Mackay, a Doctoral Candidate and Research Fellow, of the University of Otago, in collaboration with key investigators Dr Tinte Itinteang, Dr Swee Tan and Dr Paul Davis from the GMRI.

Dr Eng Tan and Mr Mackay will develop the delivery method – that is, the process that will enable medications to be absorbed through the skin directly to the area that needs treatment.

The GMRI is testing the biological effectiveness of both the delivery system and the drugs themselves to determine how well the new approach works.

An initial prototype of the through-the-skin delivery method has already been developed by the Otago group and tested at the GMRI, say Dr Eng Tan and Mr Mackay, who have been working on the concept on a part-time basis for about three years.

“This delivery system will be constructed using nano-particles that will squeeze between the skin cells,” they say. To provide some perspective, the size of the nano-particles relative to an average skin cell is like comparing a small child to the Auckland Sky Tower, say Dr Eng Tan and Mr Mackay.

“It works a little like a moisturiser in that it will be absorbed by the skin, carrying the drugs with it.”

The research team at the GMRI has discovered aberrant stem cells that are the origin of a number of conditions including strawberry birthmarks and keloid scars, as well as the regulatory system that controls these stem cells. These discoveries form the basis of the drugs to be tested in the treatment of both keloid scars and strawberry birthmarks.

Part of the process will involve assessing whether the through-the-skin delivery method will actually target and manipulate the stem cells underlying both conditions.

The GMRI’s studies will also provide expert advice to the Otago group on the type of materials from which to create the delivery system and how to construct it to maximise efficacy.

“If successful, and we are quietly confident about that, this new process will make the treatment of these conditions much more efficient,” says GMRI Senior Research Fellow Dr Paul Davis.

“It could also be applicable to the treatment of other conditions, particularly those that affect the skin.”

Mr Mackay approached Dr Swee Tan in 2014 about a possible collaboration after seeing him featured in a TV programme.

Dr Eng Tan and Mr Mackay have been honorary research associates of the GMRI since 2014.

Once the three-year study is complete and subject to its success, the two organisations will apply to have the new through-the-skin treatment method undergo the US Food and Drug Administration registration process.