It is almost like being struck by lightning twice: it is possible, but the probability is infinitely small. Nevertheless, DTU Professor Anja Boisen has twice been awarded the prestigious ERC Advanced Grant to conduct groundbreaking elite research.
She is one of only a small handful of researchers in Denmark and only the second researcher at DTU to have achieved this distinction.
She received the grant of approximately DKK 18.5 million in April. She will use it to find the ideal way to protect the active substances in medicine until they reach the right place in the patient’s intestine and attach to the intestinal wall, where the active substances are guided into the body.
However, the research project does not target just any type of medicine.
Anja Boisen has set about designing a so-called drug delivery system for oral ingestion of insulin, a large and fragile molecule: it is broken down by gastric juices and intestinal enzymes—and it cannot penetrate the intestinal wall by itself.
So, if you don’t protect it against the intestinal wall, it will break apart. And even if you guide it all the way there, it still needs help to penetrate the intestinal wall,” she explains.
Building on a good idea
Anja Boisen’s team of researchers has previously had great success in creating tiny containers—smaller than grains of sand—out of harmless medical plastic (polymer) to protect, for example, probiotics, which are bacteria that benefit the gut.
The containers, equipped with a polymer lid, are assembled in a capsule that dissolves on its way through the body. When the containers are free from the capsule, changes in pH or interaction with molecules in the surroundings cause the lid to dissolve, thus releasing the active substances.
Tests have shown that Anja Boisen and her team cannot simply copy the container design from previous projects for insulin delivery because the small containers do not get close enough to the intestinal wall. A new drug delivery system for insulin must therefore be designed.
The containers won’t simply be put into the capsule. The idea is to incorporate them in a foil almost like bubble wrap. The foil will then be rolled up and put in a capsule.
The foil will struggle to return to its flat form. So, when the large capsule dissolves, the foil will unfold and press itself up against the intestinal wall, after which the insulin will be released. The researchers will try to develop the design that best enables the foil to stay in the intestine long enough and get completely close to the intestinal wall.
We may be able to come up with a better idea than just a simple foil. It may need to be a more advanced 3D figure of some kind with tentacles sticking out,” says Anja Boisen.
Studies show that some types of foil cause intestinal cells to use a lot of energy to cling to the foil—and while they are doing so, small openings are created in the intestinal wall that allow the medicine to slip through. You can also use chemicals to open the cell wall so that the medicine can penetrate,” she explains and continues:
“However, it’s important that we are sure there are no side effects to the solutions we invent because there is obviously a reason why we have an intestinal wall. For example, bacteria should not be allowed to pass over to the wrong side.”