Queen’s University Belfast leads project to revolutionise drug delivery

Queen’s University Belfast are leading a £1.2 million project to improve drug delivery for a range of illnesses. The grant, awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of the UK Research and Innovation, is expected to accelerate the development of microarray patches for drug delivery and make them available to patients worldwide.

Microarray patches are a discreet, easy-to-use technology and painlessly penetrate the top layer of skin to deliver a drug. The patch surface that contacts the skin comprises many tiny projections that pierce the stratum corneum without causing any pain. These micro-projections create new pathways across the stratum corneum and can be designed to either enable rapid or controlled and continuous drug delivery. Consequently, micro- array technology has the potential to revolutionise the administration of both biopharmaceuticals and long-acting small molecules that are otherwise unable to be delivered across the skin.

Although there has been significant scientific progress in microarray technology, a medicinal product is yet to be commercialised, a challenge which this collaborative project aims to address.

Traditional pharmaceutical medicines contain small molecules that treat the symptoms of a disease. Treatments with small molecules deliv- ered over longer periods of time are often admini- stered by injection to enable slow-release treatment for example, injections for TB and HIV.

Biopharmaceuticals are larger molecules (e.g., proteins), which target the underlying mechanisms and pathways of a disease that are not accessible with traditional medicines. When taken orally, larger molecules drugs are typically broken down in the stomach. This creates a challenge with ensuring it reaches the target site, meaning biopharmaceutical drug delivery is often achieved via injection.

Microarray patches enable drug treatments with both small or large molecules to be delivered efficiently, eliminating the need for injections. Replacing an injection with a microarray patch could have huge implications for the advancement of medical care.

Project leader Professor Ryan Donnelly from Queen’s School of Pharmacy said: “Our research to date has suggested that microarray patches will be an effective replacement for conventional needles for a number of indications, whether it’s slow-release delivery for HIV treatment or pain-free vaccination. If we can replace the need for a range of drugs and vaccines to be given by needle-and-syringe injection with a minimally-invasive and painless patch, health- care organisations, such as the NHS, could soon benefit from reduced costs due to shorter hospital stays and more reliable drug dosing, resulting in enhanced patient quality-of-life.

“Specific anticipated benefits include improved disease control, faster detection of disease, avoidance of under- or over-dosing, and better adherence to treatment. The pain-free administration of medicines by microarray patches offers particular advantages for patients at the extremes of the age spectrum enabling more frequent monitoring and multiple drug dosing to be achieved in a convenient manner. Importantly, in the present circumstances, at-home treatment/diagnosis and keeping people away from healthcare settings will help to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to vulnerable in-patients and healthcare workers.”

The three-year collaborative project will bring together experts from academia, pharmacy and clinical settings. The team includes Queen’s University Belfast, Loughborough University and The University of Bath in conjunction with clinicians, leading companies in pharmaceutical materials and manufacture, and advanced microscopy, and the National Physical Laboratory.

Project leader Professor Ryan Donnelly from Queen’s School of Pharmacy