The goals of the new center are to better integrate the multi-step process involved in creating new pharmaceuticals and to focus Georgia Tech’s interdisciplinary efforts on helping industry bring new products to market. The effort involves more than 20 faculty members from six different academic areas at Georgia Tech.
“One of our goals in this center is to pull together these activities in a synergistic way so the process of bringing a drug to market will be more integrated,” says Mark Prausnitz, director of the center. “By bringing together people from a variety of backgrounds in science and engineering, we can provide a broader perspective and understanding of the pharmaceutical development process.”
Georgia Tech has long-standing strengths in drug development and design, as well as in the complex and demanding chemical engineering necessary for specialty chemicals. In recent years, it has built a research program in drug delivery techniques – and working with Emory University, has grown a large research and education activity in broad areas of biology and biomedical engineering, including genetics, bioinformatics and proteomics.
The new center will emphasize industrial collaboration to ensure that its activities have real-world implications and that its students learn skills that will equip them to make contributions to the pharmaceutical industry.
“We want to work with industry on the most important problems that are going to meet critical needs,” Prausnitz said. “To do that, we need to have strong interactions with industry to guide our research and education agendas.”
With a background in technologies for delivering drugs through the skin, Prausnitz sees a need to focus on delivery concerns early in the drug design process. The growing complexity of drug compounds and rising importance of gene therapies will make drug delivery an increasingly important concern, he said.
Researchers in the center are focusing on new chemical, biological and physical means for delivering drugs into the body. The chemical technologies include encapsulation, which uses microscopic polymer particles to protect drugs or genes from degradation by the body’s enzymes – and allow their release over time.
Biological approaches include the modification of viruses, or using small pieces of viruses, to deliver genes that may be able to treat cancer without prompting immune reactions or other problems. Finally, researchers are using physical means, including electric fields to deliver proteins and genes, and arrays of microscopic needles able to painlessly deliver drugs through the skin.
“The mode of delivery is becoming increasingly important for drugs today,” Prausnitz noted. “Those considerations must be taken into account at the design stage.”
Researchers associated with the center also bring unique expertise in drug development, including the use of supercritical fluids for chemical purification without using organic solvents. They are also manipulating enzymes found in nature and produced through genetic engineering to mimic the natural processes that create molecules in the body. And they are producing novel biocatalysts using an approach known as “directed evolution.”
In drug design areas, researchers have significant experience with protease inhibitors for use against cancer, stroke, emphysema and other diseases. They also have experience with anti-viral and anti-parasitic drugs, creating new molecules that can be selectively taken into infected cells without harming healthy cells. And they are developing novel therapies aimed at controlling genes, especially those involved in cancer. Examples of faculty who are part of the initiative include:
Beyond research, the center will focus on educational programs designed to help students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels understand the needs of pharmaceutical industry. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) program, it has already launched a program of doctoral fellowships that supports 12 students.
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WRITER: John Toon