Medical researchers are making great strides as they design pharmaceuticals that attack a wide range of diseases. Plant researchers are finding ever more efficient ways to increase crop yields. But conventional approaches have their challenges: often, drugs travel to parts of the body where they’re not needed or, worse, to where they can harm healthy tissue. In agriculture, seeds sometimes germinate too early to escape a killing frost, or their growth potential is squandered when fertilizer washes from fields into streams and rivers.
Sometimes the problem, and the solution, is in the packaging.
Now a Western University team led by researcher Prof. Elizabeth Gillies is finding a better way – and delivering medicine or nutrients exactly where and when they will be of most benefit. Her team is building polymer (plastic) coatings custom-designed to biodegrade precisely when their payload will be most effective.
Gillies has been named recipient of a Steacie Fellowship, one of the country’s most prestigious science prizes, awarded by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to enhance the work of outstanding university science and engineering faculty who are conducting original research. She is receiving the award at a ceremony in Ottawa on Tuesday night.
The polymers that Gillies is designing can be used as coatings, like tiny carrying-cases, for medicines, seeds or fertilizers. Under the intended conditions — such as heat, light or coming into contact with specific molecules – these polymer suitcases would “unzip” and dissolve or evaporate, after having delivered their contents when and where they’ll be most effective.
“In the case of anti-cancer drugs, rather than have the cancer drugs spread indiscriminately throughout the body, we can release them when and where they are needed,” she said. While conventional drug formulations can harm healthy cells as they destroy the bad cells, this application brings a new precision that can potentially translate to better treatment, lower doses and less incidental damage.
In agriculture, these polymers could be applied to seeds so that the coatings break down under certain conditions to permit germination only when the danger of frost has passed. As farmers apply fertilizer during the growing season, nitrogen could be encapsulated in polymers that would degrade only when the plants can make best use of the nutrients they need. This targeted release in turn mitigates the unintended environmental harm that sometimes takes place when nutrients run off a field and leach into the watershed.
While these plastics are still in development, several companies are already exploring how to bring them to market. They include pharmaceutical companies wanting drug capsules that will deliver better results and fewer side effects. Interest has also come in from agri-businesses interested in coming up with greater productivity and lower environmental impact.
Gillies is associate professor in the departments of chemistry and chemical and biochemical engineering at Western University and a member of Western’s Bone and Joint Institute. The Steacie Fellowship honours E.W.R. Steacie, a Canadian chemist and research leader who believed that young scientists are a great national asset and should be nurtured in their work. As many as six Steacie Fellowships are awarded in Canada each year and they allow recipients to devote their time solely to research.
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NOTE: See links for photos and video of Professor Elizabeth Gillies explaining her work. On Tuesday, she is available for phone interviews only between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.