Utilising a cell’s own molecular delivery system could enable specific biomedical treatments

In the world of drug delivery, getting an active compound to the right tissue or organ before the body’s defences break it down can make the difference between wellbeing and sickness, life and death. Clever capsules and coatings can boost the drug effect but every molecule has a shelf life once it enters the body, and this severely hampers effectiveness and can lead to side effects.

Deliverying drugs where they are needed in the human body has always been a major challenge to medicine. Photo by pina messina on Unsplash

Now researchers are looking to utilise a live organism’s own cellular machinery to deliver medicines right where there are needed by using extracellular vesicles (EVs). EVs are cell-derived, membranous particles that mediate intercellular communication by transferring biomolecules such as proteins and RNAs. Scientists are increasingly looking at these EVs as a means to deliver drugs in the fields of nanomedicine, cosmetics and nutraceutics. EVs offer several advantages, if they can be utilised.

VES4US is a €3M European project funded by the Future and Emerging Technology (FET)programme  that aims to develop a radically new platform to reduce the cost and the time for production and functionalisation of EVs. Using a sustainable biosource, the project aims to enable their exploitation as tailor-made products in the fields of nanomedicine, cosmetics and nutraceutics. This could allow the development of natural nanocarriers tailored for industry with unprecedented abilities for drug delivery in specific tissues such as brain, lung, skin, dendritic or tumour cells.

“In VES4US the scientific approach is focused on market and social needs. Basic science and industrial worlds will work together to reach fruitful results in breakthrough emerging technologies and knowledge for the biotechnology, nanotechnology and bioscience sectors,” says Antonella Bongiovanni, VES4US coordinator and researcher.

The discovery of EVs as natural carriers of functional small molecules and proteins has raised great interest in the drug delivery field. But systemically delivered EVs accumulate in liver, kidney and spleen, and some mammalian derived secreted EVs have shown limited pharmaceutical acceptability because of their source. To work around these issues, VES4US will start by selecting a source of EVs that will ensure the purity and quality needed to act as effective natural nanocarriers. There are currently few raw materials to make this happen and the technology to extract EVs is far from perfect for industrial scale, resulting in poor quality EVs with high costs.

“VES4US aims to overcome present limitations by developing a biocompatible and cost-effective nano extracellular vesicle-based drug delivery system, which would enhance bioavailability and improve the efficacy and safety of loaded bioactive compounds,” explains Antonella.

VES4US results could replace less acceptable tumour or animal-derived pharmaceuticals or chemical liposomes, as future vehicles for targeted drug delivery, influencing health and human wellbeing. The biotech industry generates millions of euros of revenue and sustains a sizeable work force, and the global market in exosomes (a type of EV)  was around $3M in 2016 and the forecast is $2.28Bn in 2030, according to a Grand View Research report.

This project was launched on September 2018 and will last until August 2021. The project is coordinated by  the National Research Council of Italy (Italy) and partners are the Institute of Technology Sligo (Ireland), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Switzerland), University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (Germany) and ZABALA Innovation Consulting (Spain).

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