How can we breathe new life into lung medicines?

8 Dec 2017

Image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Prof Sally Ann Cryan is developing new ways of packaging drugs so they can be inhaled directly into lungs to fight TB and other conditions. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Take a deep breath. Now think about how that flow of air could carry medicines into your lungs to treat infections or disease.

Inhalers are nothing new. As a person with asthma, Prof Sally Ann Cryan routinely carries a couple of inhalers in her handbag. Their ease of use and direct delivery into the lungs mean they are an excellent platform for even more drugs, and Cryan is on the case.

She is on a mission to formulate and package drugs and treatments into particles that can be delivered through inhalers, to make the medicines more effective so that patients have an easier time and are more likely to comply with the treatment regimes. One of her most recent targets has been tuberculosis (TB).

Tackling TB

“At the moment, treatments for TB are really arduous for patients; they have to take medication for months and that is difficult for patients to comply with,” said Cryan, who is a pharmacist and associate professor of pharmaceutics at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. “This means that firstly, the drugs don’t work as well as they could and also, it pushes up the risk of the bacteria that causes TB becoming resistant to the drugs.”

With funding from the Health Research Board, she and a team of colleagues at RCSI, St James’s Hospital and Imperial College London set about formulating various TB medicines into particles that can be delivered by inhaler, and they have successfully shown that their inhalable drugs work well in the lab. 

“We are really excited about this,” said Cryan. “And, in particular, one of the biggest breakthroughs is that we packaged a vitamin A molecule into an inhalable format. This hasn’t been done before, and hopefully it will mean patients in the future will be able to inhale this immune-boosting vitamin directly into the lungs.”


Prof Sally Ann Cryan, RCSI School of Pharmacy. Image: Sally Ann Cryan

Patient and industry 

The team thought about the research from the patient perspective as well as the scientific challenge, said Cryan. “On the one hand, we were able to package these drugs into a form that is easy for patients to take but gets the medicine to the site of infection directly; while on the other, we developed ways of formulating these drugs so they can be scaled up into large batches, which is what industry needs.”

Getting industry involved from the start has been key to the project’s success, noted Cryan, and the team has worked closely with Irish companies Aerogen and Spraybase to ensure that the lab findings can be translated into the medical devices sector. “We will continue to work together with them on more advanced testing as we prepare for human trials of the inhaled medicines,” she said.

Delivering the goods 

TB is not the only target of Cryan’s work in RCSI School of Pharmacy. Her group also researches new ways of delivering treatments into the lungs for cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute lung injury.

“We put the focus on translation,” she said. “We are seeing so many developments in the science of new treatments, whether that is using biologics as drugs including new gene-based therapies [etc] – we want to be able to get those advances to where they are needed in patients.

“And, as a person with lifelong asthma, and a pharmacist, I find it really gratifying to be doing research that should make the lives of patients with lung conditions easier.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication