New drug delivery technology could revolutionise the pharma industry

3 Oct 2017

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A QUB spin-out is developing technology that could save drug developers a lot of time and money. TechWatch’s Emily McDaid reports.

“There is no point in designing the best drug in the world, if you have no way of delivering it to the right place,” said Prof Helen McCarthy from the School of Pharmacy, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).

Together with David Tabaczynski (an entrepreneur from Boston) and QUBIS, McCarthy spun out her drug delivery technology in May this year into Phion Therapeutics.

Through 11 years of research with protein fragments called peptides, McCarthy has demonstrated drug delivery capabilities of these peptides, which could have a significant impact on the pharmaceutical industry.


Image: TechWatch

What exactly is drug delivery?

Drug delivery is the next generation of drug formulation. Drug formulation is normally a major step in the drug development pathway, where the optimal mixture of therapeutic drug and other chemicals are determined to help make the drug more stable either before or during administration. Drug delivery builds on this formulation by helping the drug circulate in the body or extending the half-life of the drug.

Delivery systems are now being designed that condense the drug into nanoparticles, which can be targeted to specific sites in the body. This is commonly referred to as nanomedicine.

Please explain what Phion has done.

There are two key advantages to Phion’s technology: it is easier to formulate the drugs, and the drugs become more effective.

Notably, Phion’s nanoparticle is based on peptides and that allows the formulation of different drugs to take place in days instead of months. As long as the drug is negatively charged, it will self-assemble with the Phion peptide to form a nanoparticle. A simple analogy would be when a positively charged magnet attracts a negatively charged magnet. This ultimately saves drug developers time and money.


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The second advantage is that the Phion’s nanoparticle can achieve full distribution of a drug cargo. Furthermore, with just a few adjustments, the nanoparticle can be targeted. For example, Phion has been able to concentrate various anionic drugs into tumours while preventing delivery to normal or healthy tissue and cells. This is potentially revolutionary for the treatment of cancers.

What’s next for Phion?

Phion is in the early stages of commercialisation and interacting with many large pharmaceutical companies. We have expanded faster than expected but thankfully have the support of QUB as well as a key UK not-for-profit, Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult.

The list of potential applications is almost limitless. As Phion engages with more pharmaceutical companies, we expect to discover even more drug classes that could be applied to our technology.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

Phion Therapeutics will take part in the annual Invent competition, which is run by Connect at Catalyst Inc and aims to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2017 will take place on Thursday 5 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund and the chance to attend a Northern Ireland tech mission to California.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland