75 million SEK for research on new pharmaceuticals

Chalmers receives 75 million SEK to encapsulate biological pharmaceuticals in nano carriers – research that aims to find new ways of treating severe diseases. Elin Esbjörner from the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering is part of the project.

​The news was released last week: The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, SSF, invests a minimum of 75 million SEK in an industrial research center led by Physics professor Fredrik Höök. The new center will study fundamental requirements for pharmaceuticals made from biological molecules like DNA and RNA.

– A promising candidate for treating today’s incurable diseases is to reprogram the cells. However, since the reprogramming must take place inside the cell, the pharmaceutical must penetrate the cell membrane. Designing and encapsulating biological molecules so that they are capable of this is very challenging, says Fredrik Höök in a text from the Department of Physics (read the text here).

In the project, nano carriers that transport pharmaceuticals into the cell will be fabricated, mimicking naturally occurring processes for communication between cells in the human body. Elin Esbjörner, Associate Professor at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering, takes part in the project and describes the term nano carrier:

– A nano carrier is simply a very small capsule. The RNA-based pharmaceutical needs to be encapsulated, both to be absorbed and to be protected from decomposition outside the cell we want to reach. You could say that we are going to package RNA into small capsules, which will work like Trojan horses to get into the cell.

The researchers found inspiration from nature’s own homing nano carriers, so called exosomes. Exosomes are membrane shielded droplets that send information and molecules between cells.

– They are secreted and then absorbed by a receiving cell. We think that mimicking exosomes will be a very good idea, Elin Esbjörner says.

What’s your part in this project?
– My work is about uptake and trafficking of RNA-based pharmaceuticals within the cell. I will contribute knowledge on quantitative measurements and imaging of cell uptake. One of our goals is to map the mechanisms that RNA-based drugs use to get into the cells. I will also contribute by developing methods to study a process called endosomal escape. This is a necessary step that has to take place after the cell has taken up the RNA, because most of it will be entrapped by intracellular transport carriers – endosomes. During endosomal escape, the RNA finds its way out of the endosomes and into the cytoplasm where it’s therapeutically effective. Today, the endosomal escape is ineffective and this is one of the biggest challenges to RNA-based drugs. We hope to increase effectiveness in this process by understanding exactly how it works.

How will this huge project affect you?
– This is a lot of fun. To be given this big and prestigious grant does not only mean a new research project, it also mean that I now get to collaborate with Fredrik Höök and Marcus Wilhelmsson, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and the other center partners approaching biomolecular questions that we have had for years. It will also bring a big change to my workdays. My research group will grow to almost twice its size and at Chalmers we will work closely with Fredrik and Marcus. I will also continue my present research about protein folding diseases, and it actually fits nicely together with this new project – uptake is important in both. I think my projects will enrich each other. And, to have financing for such a long time means safety and a chance to work undisturbed.

Partners in the project are AstraZeneca, Camurus, Vironova, Gothenburg Sensor Devices as well as Karolinska Institute and Gothenburg University.

Text: Mia Malmstedt

Published: Thu 16 Feb 2017.