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Researchers Awarded $1 Million Grant To Improve Drug Delivery Methods

January 27, 2010

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Researchers from the University of Kansas will use a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to find molecules capable of delivering drugs to specific cells in the body, allowing researchers to develop drugs that treat damaged cells without harming healthy cells.

The NIH awarded the grant as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Led by Blake Peterson, the Regents Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, and Brian Ackley, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, the two-year project was part of the estimated 4 percent of applications to be accepted that were submitted to the Recovery Act Limited Competition: NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research. It was the only challenge grant funded in Kansas.

Peterson thinks the NIH funded his application, "Tissue-specific delivery of probes by control of membrane trafficking of endoprotease substrates," because of the significance of the problem that he plans to study and because of his interdisciplinary approach that brings together chemists, biologists and computational scientists.

"This grant is a major boost to my research program because it allows us for the first time to pursue a new research area focused on chemical biology, drug discovery and drug delivery using C. elegans as a model organism," Peterson said.

It is often difficult to predict whether drug prospects will be capable of accumulating in damaged cells without distributing to undesired locations in the body.

"A major unsolved problem in drug delivery is how to transport poorly permeable drugs across membrane barriers and release those drugs only in specific diseased cells or tissues," said Peterson. "The goal of this funded challenge grant project is to discover new molecules capable of delivering fluorescent molecular probes into specific tissues of the model organism C. elegans. Our proposed studies of this microscopic worm model represent a first step toward future tissue-specific drug delivery studies in higher organisms."

Peterson's project proposes a new strategy to solve the delivery problem. The strategy mimics the way that nature provides nutrients such as cholesterol to every cell in an animal. The researchers will use a new delivery platform, based on previous studies in Peterson's laboratory, that involves the use of synthetic molecules that resemble cholesterol and are capable of accessing essentially all of the cells in the worm model. Processing of these compounds by natural enzymes, called tissue-specific proteases, will be used to control the release of a linked probe only in specific tissues. They will use fluorescence microscopy to examine the delivery of fluorescent molecules to essentially all of the 959 somatic cells of the adult worm.

NIH challenge grants fund research in 15 broad categories, including genomics, regenerative medicine, enhancing clinical trials and health disparities. According to preliminary NIH estimates, 20,000 applications were submitted for challenge grants. Of those, only 840 were funded.

This article originally appeared on the University of Kansas website. Reposted with permission.

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