Colin McCoy is fascinated by light and how it can be applied in the medical world. "Light is easy to control. You switch a light on or off. What's less easy to control is how drugs move about, what doses we're actually getting. Even with something as simple as taking a paracetamol, it's very difficult to control the level of drug in the blood."
So Colin, Reader in Pharmaceutics, and his research colleagues at the School of Pharmacy began working on a light-triggered drug delivery system. With this, a drug is released only when light is present at a predetermined wavelength and intensity. "We want to control exactly the amount of drug and exactly where to place it. It's a case of what you want, where you want it and how much you want."
This work has now led to another research project with funding from EPSRC. "With patients in intensive care there's a high death rate from pneumonia due to infection. Often they have several devices connecting the body to specialised equipment. One is the endotracheal tube, usually made of PVC, which channels air into the lungs from a ventilator. But bacteria can grow and stick to the surface of the tube."
As Colin explains, "There was no technology out there which could control this effectively. The answer came from what we'd already learned about applying light to the delivery of drugs. That became the driver.
"We'll still use specific and selective antibiotics but instead of giving them by injection or tablet our new approach is to chemically bind them to the surface where the bacteria are going to attach. Then, when we need to, we can break the bond by shining light from a fibre optic. This will release antibiotic in a very high concentration right at the bacteria."
So far everything is going according to plan but Colin says that, unexpectedly, they are finding possible applications in other areas of medicine.
The research will last for three years. "Although we're not proceeding to a full clinical trial yet, we know that the impact is potentially very large. Quite simply, we're showing a general way of delivering drugs with something that's very easy to control, namely light. As a result, being able to stop these infections will save huge amounts of money for the NHS but, more importantly, it will save lives."
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