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Tiny Cages that deliver medicines

Can we solve common issues of cancer treatments through the use of a nano-sized crystal?

Common cancer treatments today can be incredibly toxic: some are insoluble in water and therefore require higher doses, and some are non-specific – affecting more than just the unhealthy areas of the body. Treatments also tend to not last very long and require patients to undergo numerous injections every week.

Over the years, researchers have engineered potential solutions to these problems, aiming to create solutions with slow and controlled drug delivery. Slow release allows for fewer and less frequent injections, while controlled delivery assists with less toxic side effects. Various advanced materials (some that mimic nature) are used, including polymers, peptides, and viruses. In my group, we have utilised nano-sized cages (called metal-organic frameworks) to act as both a carrier and protector, and traffic therapeutic molecules into cells.

Metal-organic frameworks are made up of two components: an organic linker and a metal cluster. They can be built from a variety of different molecule combinations. Metals that we use are biologically compatible, such as zirconium.  The material chemistry is easily tuneable, and we can functionalise these materials to be targeted to specific cell receptors. This decreases off-targeting side effects and improves efficiency of treatment. We can also design the metal-organic framework to have large porosity, which is useful for encapsulating big biologic molecules compared with smaller synthetic drugs. These biologic macromolecules offer advantages over small drugs, especially related to specificity; therefore, designing a material to accommodate them offers much potential.

My research focuses on the design of these nano-sized cages to extend a drug’s efficacy – or potency – and encapsulation of a newer form of therapy (small interfering RNA) into the framework. This newer form of therapy is involved in a cellular mechanism called RNA interference, and has the ability to decrease the expression of a gene of interest. For cancer applications, this is incredibly useful and a very powerful technique. If one can limit the expression of a growth gene, for instance, it is much easier to remove a tumour before it gets too large and becomes malignant.

The potential for this research as a platform technology is wide ranging. We hope that in some years’ time, we can engineer a better solution for patients that is longer lasting, has less side effects, and involves zero reliance on patient compliance. 

Michelle Teplensky

NanoDTC PhD Associate 2016

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Midi+PhD Project Proposals from Cambridge Academics

Dec 19, 2018

We are now accepting project proposals for Midi (May-Jul 2019) + PhD projects (starting Oct 2019) for our c2018 students. Deadline 18 Feb.

NanoDTC student paper published in Nature Comms

Dec 07, 2018

c2013 student Jasmine Rivett was the first author on the recent paper, “Long-lived polarization memory in the electronic states of lead-halide perovskites from local structural dynamics” in Nature Communications.

Applications for Oct 2019 entry

Nov 15, 2018

We are now accepting applications for entry in Oct 2019. The deadline to be considered for the 1st round of shortlisting is 5th Dec 2018.

Black researchers shaping the future

Oct 13, 2018

As the UK marks Black History Month, researchers from across the University talk about their route to Cambridge, their inspiration and their motivation.