Posted on 10 months ago by Laurentina Kennedy
The best way to deliver future RNA medicines? Bubble-wrapped
Prof Caitriona O’Driscoll, chair of pharmaceutics, UCC school of pharmacy
What are you working on now?
I work with a team on new ways to deliver the next generation of RNA medicines into the body in the future. Many people will be familiar with mRNA being used in vaccines against Covid-19. We are working on delivering a different type of RNA into the body; small interfering RNA.
These siRNAs can be designed to switch off specific genes that are causing disease, but to do that they need to get to the site of action in the body, and that is where we come in – if you can’t deliver that RNA in a safe and effective way, it won’t have the desired impact on the patient.
How would you deliver siRNAs into the body?
These siRNAs are challenging to deliver as medicines, because they break down easily and they tend not to travel well through cell membranes to get into where they need to be.
So we design new biomaterials to encapsulate them. It is analogous to putting something fragile in bubble wrap before you put it into the post, but this is at nanoparticle level. This encapsulating biomaterial also has information about where the cargo needs to go in the body, which is like putting the address on the bubble-wrapped package when it goes into the post.
What kinds of diseases might be targeted?
We are looking at how to deliver siRNAs to treat diseases like prostate cancer and leukaemia, and the holy grail is to make a delivery system that can be taken by mouth, to make it easier for the patient.
This would also open opportunities to target the gut more directly in conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease. And of course we always need to think about the need to manufacture such drug delivery systems at scale, and the regulatory environment that would approve them for use.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
I think the mRNA vaccines have built up awareness and confidence in using RNAs. If you pardon the pun, it has been a shot in the arm for research into using nucleic acids as medicines. I have been working in this area for nearly 20 years, and it’s great to see this increased awareness and energy about it now.
How did you become interested in pharmaceutics?
I studied pharmacy and did a PhD in pharmaceutics, which is the science of turning drugs into medicines. In 2003 I became the first chairwoman of pharmaceutics in UCC and I helped to set up the new school of pharmacy.
We went from a standing start, and today we have more than 900 pharmacy graduates. I’m very proud of that achievement, and of the team we have built up here in the school. They really have great national and international reputations.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a researcher?
I think like most academic researchers it is the ongoing need to write grant applications, and juggling research with teaching, managing projects and administration and keeping everything going.
But it is a privilege to do this work, and I really enjoy being part of the SFI research centres Cúram and Amber and the SSPC, where I get to work with different groups with new perspectives. I have also enjoyed mentoring PhD students over the years and seeing how they grow and become independent.
And finally, how do you take a break?
I love Pilates and walking and yoga. I also enjoy nice dinners prepared by my husband, and I like to read novels as they are very different from the reading I do for work. Over Christmas I really enjoyed The Magician by Colm Tóibín.