WIT researchers to work on drug delivery across the skin

A WIT led consortium has been awarded substantial funding to help develop technologies for delivering drugs across the skin. The project, called HIPODERM (HIgh POtency DERMatologicals), will focus on highly potent drugs and will include Waterford-based EirGen Pharma Ltd., Cardiff University and An-eX Analytical Services Ltd., also based in Cardiff.

Dr. Peter McLoughlin, Principal Investigator of the Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre (PMBRC) in WIT and leader of the consortium explained the background to the project. “Currently, many drugs are taken orally or injected directly into the bloodstream where they travel around the body. This is very inefficient as most of the drug taken does not reach the target organ that you wish to treat. In addition, many of the drugs used today are highly toxic and delivery of these drugs around the body can result in debilitating side effects. If we can deliver these drugs directly to the target across the skin, for example in skin cancer treatment, we can maximise the therapeutic effect and minimise the unpleasant side effects”. Delivering drugs across the skin is not easy however. “The skin evolved to keep things out, not let things in” said Dr. McLoughlin. “This project is aimed at overcoming some of the challenges associated with getting therapeutic agents to pass through the skin layers”.

The drugs to be evaluated in the project will be highly potent. High potency drugs are those which require only a tiny amount, often less than the weight of a grain of sugar, to have a therapeutic effect.  However, exposure to large quantities of these drugs can be highly toxic or even fatal and thus require specialist facilities, such as those at EirGen Pharma, to handle them. “We have invested heavily in developing our high-potency plant in Waterford” stated Tom Brennan, Technical Director and co-founder of EirGen. “Approximately 25% of drugs in development worldwide are classified as high potency and this percentage is expected to grow – we are well placed to capitalise on this growth. EirGen has also been very successful in the past year with the commercialisation of a number of high-potency formulations. We see this collaboration as key to the strategic development of the company and builds upon our existing relationship with the PMBRC which has proven very successful in the past”.

The project will require WIT and EirGen researchers to exchange with those from Cardiff University and An-eX Analytical Services in a European Union funded scheme known as the Marie Cuie Industry Academia Partnership and Pathways programme. Between them, the Welsh School of Pharmacy at Cardiff University and An-eX have over 40 years research experience in the dermal delivery of drugs, making them ideal partners for the Waterford teams. The funding will enable the recruitment of 5  research scientists in Waterford and Cardiff over a four year period. The long-term benefits are more significant however. “We plan to commercialise the results of this research in the form of patents and licensing” said Dr. McLoughlin. “Also, this project is a major milestone in the development of the PMBRC and builds upon existing research in drug delivery in the centre”.

Ultimately though, the focus is on the potential benefit to the patient. Mr. Gordon Watson, a retired consultant surgeon and former South East regional director of cancer services who is advising the consortium, is particularly enthusiastic. “There are conditions which are very persistent and we struggle to treat them effectively with existing therapies. While the results are some way off, I am very excited by this project – I think it can make a real difference”.


Pictured left to right: Joe O'Mahony (WIT), Niall O'Reilly (WIT), Qendresa Osmani (An-eX), Marc Kelly (EirGen), June Frisby (WIT), David Barrow (CU), Helen Hughes (WIT), Keith Brain (An-eX), Jennifer Morrissey (WIT), Chris Allender (CU), Peter McLoughlin (WIT), Ken O'Shea (EirGen).