How Fluorescence is Changing Drug Delivery

Targeting drug delivery effectively has long been one of healthcare’s greatest challenges.

With 99% of chemotherapy drugs administered not reaching the tumour site, scientists have been experimenting with ways to concentrate often-toxic drugs toward the parts of the body that need treatment, minimising the damage to the rest of the body.

Current methods of targeted delivery include covering particles of medication with an antiphagocytic coating, allowing drugs to remain in circulation longer before the coating wears off and the treatment is in effect.

Other options include learning which receptors the cells of of the diseased tissue have, and then utilising cell-specific molecules of medication, which will bind specifically to the complementary receptors in the targeted part of the body.

How, then, can fluorescent light unlock a whole new method of drug delivery with such promising results that an entire company is being created to test and develop it?

Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have just found out.

Blood meets light

By attaching a molecule of medication to a molecule of Vitamin B12, scientists can create ‘sleeper agent’ drug particles which, when loaded into red blood cells, will circulate around the body via the bloodstream. The particles can be ‘activated’ via fluorescent light, which separates the drugs from the vitamin B12 when they reach the appropriate area of the body.

Finding a way to penetrate the body with light waves, however, was no easy task for the researchers. After experimenting with long-wavelength light, they discovered that it could penetrate any area of the body, but wasn’t strong enough to break the bonds between the particles.

Instead, they use a particle of fluorescent material attached to the drug as a receptor of sorts, capturing long-wavelength light, amplifying its effects and directing it to separate the medication from the Vitamin B12.

Predicted benefits

Scientists hope that this advance will not only reduce damage to parts of the body that are not diseased, but also cut down on the amount of drug needed to combat diseases, saving time and money for doctors and patients alike.

Furthermore, this level of precise targeting can significantly reduce the risk of adverse side effects, as well as lessening the need for surgery in certain cases. In particular, scientists predict that cancer chemotherapy can be revolutionised, cutting out side-effects such as fatigue, nausea, hair loss and infection during the treatment period.

Researchers also predict that some patients will eventually be able to treat themselves at home by shining long-waveform light on problematic areas, such as arthritic joints, to activate self-administered drugs. This will significantly cut the cost of treatment, and leave patients feeling more in control of their illness.

Future developments

The future is bright for this cutting-edge research, with the University of North Carolina partnering with the team to found Iris BioMed - a startup company based around further developing the drug delivery technology, and trialling it across different diseases and treatments.

Where do you see this innovation taking the pharmaceutical industry? Let us know on LinkedIn. Learn more about cutting-edge healthcare innovations with our predictions for healthcare tech in 2017.