The future of medicine

Personalised cures, medicines without side effects and injections without pain are just some of the goals being pursued by biomedical researchers at the University of Greenwich.

What if vaccinations could be given without using a big needle? What if alien objects like the stents used to repair arteries could melt away when they are no longer needed?

What if cancer could be cured with drugs that targeted and destroyed abnormal cells while leaving healthy tissue alone, thereby avoiding the side effects of chemo- and radiotherapy?

These are just three of the life-changing challenges Professor Dennis Douroumis and his 15-strong team of researchers are working on. And they are already a long way towards finding solutions.

"We are probably only about five years away from the commercial manufacture of microneedles which will deliver vaccines and other drugs painlessly, and medical stents which will dissolve harmlessly into the body," says Professor Douroumis. "We have also seen significant regression of cancer in trials, using nanoparticles to carry drugs into tumour cells."

3D printing

Professor Dennis Douroumis 
Dennis Douroumis 3

Professor Douroumis, an internationally recognised expert in innovative pharmaceutical technologies, is the first researcher to use 3D printing to manufacture medical stents made from polymers.

He says: "Traditionally the stents used to open blocked arteries are metal. They stay in the body forever and can cause problems – not least if they break. The stents of the future will be made from polymers designed to dissolve when they are no longer needed, usually within two years."

Printing stents will also mean that each one can be personalised to fit exactly the size and shape of the affected artery, and manufactured on the spot at the hospital.

Professor Douroumis, a member of the university's Faculty of Engineering & Science, adds: "Furthermore, the polymers can contain and release the right doses of different drugs that patients need to take over several months as part of their treatment, making life much simpler."

Being able to engineer polymers to release drugs over time opens up new horizons. Another novel use of 3D printing pioneered by the Greenwich team is to replace the traditional big needle, used to inject vaccines and drugs, with tiny patches of microneedles which can be kept on the skin beneath a plaster. These are painless, much more efficient than big needles, and easily used by the patient at home.

Microneedles are not only good news for those of us scared of injections, they will also usher in a new generation of treatments for patients with diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer.

"We are probably only about five years away from the commercial manufacture of microneedles which will deliver vaccines and other drugs painlessly, and medical stents which will dissolve harmlessly into the body."
Professor Douroumis, Professor in Pharmaceutical Technology and Process Engineering.
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Scientists at work at Medway

Improving the absorption rate of medicines

One of the key challenges in pharmaceutical research is how to improve drug solubility. Over half of ingredients used in medicines are defined as 'poorly water-soluble' meaning that not much active drug gets absorbed by the body.

Dennis Douroumis, Professor in Pharmaceutical Technology and Process Engineering at the University of Greenwich, is one of the world's leading experts in a novel process to transform solubility called Hot Melt Extrusion. It works by applying heat and pressure to melt a polymer and force it through an orifice. Hot Melt Extrusion is attractive as an industrial process because it is continuous, producing solid tablets, capsules or granules without ceasing, and it also brings down costs by reducing doses. The team are collaborating with global pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and TEVA on this project. Other corporate partners include Gamlen Tableting and Fuji Chemicals.

Coating processing of microneedle patches

Personalised wristbands will cut down hospital visits

Biopharmaceuticals are one of the UK's key industries and the University of Greenwich works with partners across business, government and academia to develop new processes, making manufacture more seamless, efficient, cost-effective and high quality.

One multi-disciplinary project currently underway at Greenwich is the development of intelligent wristbands which will monitor patients' heart rate, temperature, blood pressure and oxygen levels.

Professor Douroumis says: "The current technology used in activity trackers is fine for fitness monitoring but not accurate enough for medical use.

"We are working with partners in France to develop the wristband material, in Belgium to research the censors, and with Sports Science colleagues, Professors Ian Swaine and Peter Kyberd in my own Faculty of Engineering & Science, to create the evaluation tests. My team will develop 3D printed designs which can incorporate the censors in specific arrangements to maximise accuracy."

medicine group photo
Dennis with members of his research team

He says the personalised devices will send information wirelessly via phones to doctors, flagging up problems immediately and reducing the need for visits and expensive tests.

An ambassador for science

Professor Douroumis was honoured by the pharmaceutical industry this September when he was invited to give the prestigious Award Lecture, sponsored by AstraZeneca, at the Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences' 'PharmSci 2017' conference. Academics are chosen for work which is "outstanding and ambassadorial in their area with an international reputation", and for broad scientific awareness.

He is the editor of two books in the publisher Wiley's 'Advances in Pharmaceutical technology' series, and editorial board member of seven publications for peer reviewed articles. He is also part of multidisciplinary project 'IMODE EU', designed to give European partner countries strategic advantage for innovative pharmaceutical and medical applications.