The introduction of morphine in the 19th century to alleviate pain revolutionized medicine in a way few innovations do, but it brought with it a grave unintended consequence: addiction. In today’s society, opioid addiction is creating the biggest health crisis of the last half century. Affecting nearly 1 in 100 people, opioid addiction occurs more than type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or a number of other diseases. The addiction crisis also appears in global affairs and impacts our national security: heroin production in Afghanistan over the last 40 years has been critical to funding military actions by insurgent groups against both the US and, in the past, the Soviet Union.
However, bioengineers at Stanford have begun to tackle the issue of production and might have begun to tackle the issue of addiction. In the lab of Christine Smolke, Ph.D., Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford, they have been genetically engineering yeast to produce opioids. They described the process in a 2015 article from Science. Now, in a recent interview in Fast Company, Dr. Smolke discusses the possibility of using the yeast producing method she pioneered to produce opioids without addiction potential. These alternative drugs are very expensive to produce, and Dr. Smolke’s process could provide safer, less addictive compounds to people in need.
Breaking the Barrier
Among the challenges faced by bioengineers working on therapies for brain disease is the blood-brain barrier (BBB), a tightly regulated boundary between the circulatory system and the brain that prevents all but the tiniest molecules from getting into the brain. The poor permeability of the BBB to many molecules means that one needs to use higher drug dosages to reach the brain, which is one of the reasons why most psychiatric medications have a broad array of side effects.
One way of circumventing this issue is to deliver the drugs directly to the brain, rather than using oral or intravenous delivery methods that need to cross the BB. Here, the challenge is one of size — unless a needle used to administer such a drug is very small, it will invariably damage brain tissue, which can have devastating consequences. Answering this call has been Robert Langer, Ph.D., David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, whose lab has successfully microfabricated delivery cannulas as small as 30 microns, about one-third the diameter of human hair. As they report in Science Translational Medicine
, the new cannula can target brain areas as small as 1 cubic millimeter.
Dr. Langer and his colleagues used the new cannula to create an implantable device, called the miniaturized neural drug delivery system (MiNDS), that they subsequently tested in rats and rhesus monkeys. They found that the device could modulate neuronal activity in both animals. In addition, MiNDS could also record and transmit information from the treatment site to enable feedback control. Going forward, the study authors envision the use of non-metallic materials to fashion cannulas and hydrogel coatings to facilitate MR imaging and increase biocompatibility.
Unlocking the Mystery of IPF
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a lung disease that causes permanent scarring of the lung tissue. The disease affects around five million people worldwide, mainly people 50 or older, and the five-year mortality rate is very high. Although risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, have been identified, as the word “idiopathic” implies, the cause is unknown, making it difficult to create effective therapies other than ones that merely slow the progression of the disease.
However, thanks to a new discovery, we might be closer to effective treatments. In an article in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight,
a team of scientists from Yale University report
that the tissue lesions that constitute IPF are made up of roughly one-fifth pericytes — a type of contractile cell that plays an important role in the proper function of capillaries, including those in the lungs.
The study authors, led by Anjelica Gonzalez, Ph.D., Donna L. Dubinsky Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Yale, found that IPF caused pericytes to take on the properties of myofibroblasts, a cell type that is important to the wound-healing process. They found further that treatment of these myofibroblast-like pericytes with nintedanib, a drug approved for IPF treatment, reversed this effect. Armed with this knowledge, we come a step closer to designing and producing more effective therapies for IPF, as well as for diseases with similar effects.
People and Places
Washington University in St. Louis has announced it will launch
a Ph.D. program in imaging science, to enroll its first cohort this fall. The program will be headed by Mark Anastasio, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a 1993 recipient of an MSE from Penn. WashU’s program is only the second such program in the country, following the program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Closer to home, Johns Hopkins is the recipient of a $50 million donation from the United Arab Emirates. The money will be used to create
the Sheikh Khalifa Stroke Institute, which will unite faculty members from biomedical engineering, neurology, and rehabilitation medicine to advance research into stroke.