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Grant to support development of lung treatment


Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin's College of Pharmacy have developed a process that promises new hope to lung transplant and asthma patients.

Dr. Robert O. Williams III, professor of pharmaceutics, along with co-collaborator Dr. Jay I. Peters, leads the team that developed a process to improve the effectiveness of immunosuppressants, drugs used to prevent rejection following solid organ transplantation.  The process also is thought to be useful in treating asthma patients.

The development team recently received support in its efforts through a $50,000 grant from the Texas Ignition Fund, a UT System program designed to speed up the commercialization of products created by UT System institutions.

The fund is designed to provide additional financial resources to support faculty initiatives before the faculty members can attract investors to bring the process to the marketplace. 

The new process is supported by the College of Pharmacy's Drug Development Institute (DDI), a multi-disciplinary research center where scientists, educators, businesses and regulatory agencies collaborate in finding solutions to a wide range of biomedical, pharmaceutical and public health issues.  The grant will support advancement of Phase I human trials, and will be done in collaboration with the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The particle engineering process developed by Williams and Dr. Keith P. Johnston, breaks the pharmaceutical compound into tiny pieces called nanoparticles.  The tiny size of the particles provides greater surface area, increasing the absorption rate in the body.  The medication is administered with an oral inhaler that delivers the majority of the medication directly into the lungs, leading to lower threats of toxicity to other organs.

The initiative offers new hope to lung transplant patients.  Each year many patients are forced to seek a transplant when their own lungs no longer function effectively.  Transplant patients must take daily medications to suppress their immune system to help safeguard against their bodies rejecting the organ.  Overall survival of lung transplant patients lags behind patients who receive other transplant organs with a five-year survival rate of approximately 50 percent. 

Tacrolimus, a potent immunosuppressant drug, is the most effective treatment for solid organ transplant.  Taking the drug orally results in widely variable levels of the drug in the bloodstream.  Patients with high levels in their bloodstream run the risk of damage to other organs in the body.   Patients with bloodstream levels of the drug that are too low experience reduced effectiveness of the drug in suppressing the immune system and risk rejection of the transplanted organ.

Allergic asthma patients also stand to benefit from the new drug process.  Asthma is characterized by airway inflammation with episodes of airway obstruction and hyper-responsiveness to inhaled allergens.  Occurrence of asthma is growing at an alarming rate, particularly in developed countries where 25 percent of children are affected by asthma.  Allergic asthma triggers a counterproductive inflammatory response requiring immunosuppressive therapy to restore proper lung function.  The most common treatment for allergic asthma is a steroid hormone known as glucocorticoid.    However 5-10 percent of asthma sufferers do not respond to this treatment, accounting for 50 percent of asthma-associated health care costs. Tacrolimus administered through the nanoparticle process, is expected to effectively reduce inflammation in these patients.  

Members of the development team include Williams, Peters and Johnston, in addition to Dr. Robert M. Talbert, professor of pharmacy at UT Austin and professor of pharmacy and medicine at UTHSCSA; Alan Watts, a Ph.D. student working with Williams; and Janet Walkow, director of the DDI.

While Tacrolimus is the first drug the team plans to test using the process, the team believes their system may provide an effective administration method to a portfolio of drugs that have been set aside due to problems with their absorption rate.

Last Reviewed: July 22, 2009

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