UM students research new drug delivery systems

For the past year, students at the University of Mississippi — mostly chemistry, pharmacy, biology and engineering majors — have been experimenting different ways for drug delivery for the nasal cavity.

Located on the first floor of Coulter Hall, many projects testing drug delivery are currently ongoing.

Eden Tanner, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, started this lab in hopes of finding new ways to administer drugs.

“As anyone who’s had a cold or runny nose knows, the nose is full of mucus. And so what we need to do is test our materials to see how they interact with and how they move through or diffuse through that mucus to get through to the tissue onto the other side,” Tanner said.

The materials the lab uses are called ionic liquids, which coats nanoparticles and the coating interacts with the mucus, allowing the nanoparticles to travel through the nasal cavity.

New forms of drug delivery can be revolutionary to pharmaceuticals.

“The ionic liquid will change the diffusion, and that could be really important because it means that we could potentially get drugs across that biological barrier and into people’s bodies much more easily than we could without using these tools,” Tanner said.

Many scientists today are studying how to deliver medicine to the brain through the nasal cavity.

People who battle with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or other neurological diseases could benefit significantly from nasal delivery.

However, one of the major challenges has been getting therapeutics across the blood barrier and into the brain.

“Normally in a healthy way, we don’t want anything to enter into our brain, but that means we can’t get medicines into the brain,” Tanner said. “So one of the things we might be thinking about is how we can package things like gene therapies or antibody therapies or other very sensitive therapies into nanoparticles, and then use the nasal drug delivery to get them into the brain in a noninvasive way.”

Mary Beth VanLandingham, a junior chemistry major, joined the lab last semester.

“I test the diffusion rates of different ionic liquid capped nanoparticles, so basically what that means is nanoparticles are really little particles that can self-assemble into little capsule things. So ideally, like this lab, we’re interested in drug delivery,” VanLandingham said. “So ionic liquids are basically just liquid salts and when you put the nanoparticles in them, you can get funky results. So, I’m looking at the diffusion rates of ionic liquid coated nanoparticles through nasal mucus.”

VanLandingham spends around 10 hours a week at the lab and when she is not at the lab she is reading literature or doing programming.

Typically VanLandingham synthesizes nanoparticles, which means putting chemicals together and letting them stir for a calculated amount of time and cap them, which takes about two hours.

When she is not doing that she uses a programming language called Python to look at videos she took using an optical microscope and analyzes the activity.

“I can put it in the program and it’ll spit out the diffusivity constant. Like I said, I use the optical microscope to actually take recorded videos of the nanoparticles, like diffusing through the mucus, which is kind of cool to see them move around because they’re really tiny. You couldn’t see that with your naked eye,” VanLandingham said.

The video shows tiny white dots, which can be seen due to fluorescent dye, shaking in the frame. This movement is the diffusion rate.

“The computer program measures how far the particles travel or diffuse per frame or so and that allows us to measure what we call a difffusion coefficient, which is basically a number that expresses how far did the particles move per second,” Tanner said. “What we want to know is, does the ionic liquid coating change that? Does it make them faster or slower in the mucus? The different liquids affect the diffusion coefficient in different ways.”

Tanner anticipates the experiment on ion coating affecting diffusion to be finished by the end of the semester, however there will be many stages after.

The next stage will focus on transport across the nasal mucosa, a type of tissue that lines the nasal cavity, and after that the lab would move towards animal models to see if the delivery of drugs could cure diseases.

Without the extensive time at the lab, the discoveries VanLandingham and Tanner found would not have the experiment at the stage it is at now.

“Mary Beth’s project, she makes these beautiful diffusion cells and she really has to be careful to control the thickness of those cells because our microscope can really only focus in 2D, and so if she makes them too thick, she won’t be able to focus on the particles and those that took weeks for her basically to figure out exactly what depth she needed,” Tanner said. “So if she didn’t have those 10 hours a week, you can imagine it would take her months instead to figure out the ideal depth. So it’s really just giving you space and time and freedom to walk through the problems that naturally come up when you’re designing an experiment and building new things for the first time.”

Through the lab and this experiment, VanLandingham has gotten to apply skills she has learned in a classroom and seen the practical use of them.

“You’re getting results. We recently published our first paper, so that was really exciting,” VanLandingham said. “Everyone in the lab is really nice and willing to help each other out on things and it’s just a good experience.”

The project VanLandingham works on is not the only project that is happening in Coulter.

There is a project that experiments on hitting a ride on different blood components.

Although this lab focuses more on physical chemistry, VanLandingham wants to pursue a career in environmental chemistry research.

However, all forms of specialties will be important in understanding the materials of drug delivery.

“Fundamental kind of physical chemistry is important to understand in order to be able to really develop tools that give us that control over where the things are going in the human body, and that in order to do this work, we really need a device, an interdisciplinary team,” Tanner said. “Mary Beth is a chemist, but we have people who are in pharmaceutics, people who are in engineering or in biology and we really need all of those skill sets to be able to solve these grand challenges. So I really also want to emphasize the importance of diversity and collaboration and people bringing different life experiences to get science done.”

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