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Drug discovery and delivery research at Northeastern’s pharmacy school spurs innovation, collaboration

Drug discovery and delivery research at Northeastern’s pharmacy school spurs innovation, collaboration
Drug discovery and delivery research at Northeastern’s pharmacy school spurs innovation, collaboration

Throughout Northeastern’s School of Pharmacy, researchers are making progress in solving a range of pressing health challenges.

This research is taking place in both of the schools’ departments: the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and the Department of Pharmacy and Health Systems Sciences. Ray Booth, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences and chemistry, created a new drug for managing schizophrenia. Alex Makriyannis, the George D. Behrakis Endowed Chair and director of Northeastern’s Center for Drug Discovery, develops drugs whose action, once complete, is turned off by a timing mechanism, thus reducing side effects. Heather Clark, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, is creating nanoparticles to help better understand the brain’s chemical secrets. And John Devlin, a professor of pharmacy and health systems sciences, develops interprofessional approaches to assess and treat delirium and agitation in intensive care units.

Combatting auto-immune diseases

Mansoor Amiji, Distinguished Professor and chair of the school’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, for his part, focuses on developing novel drug delivery systems for therapeutics to treat drug-resistant cancer as well as inflammatory disorders. With support from National Institutes of Health, Amiji’s team developed one such system to treat rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disease associated with stiffness, pain, and joint swelling. In the study, which involved rats, one gene-therapy dose was found to help the animals walk for up to 28 days without difficulty.

Drug discovery and development is one of the school’s research thrusts, and it’s a space, as Amiji put it, in which the school has “created a comprehensive research nexus” in the Boston area. “We have a cluster of people working toward this goal of discovering and developing new drugs and therapeutics for treating some of the worst diseases out there,” he said.

Nanocarriers to the rescue

Vladimir Torchilin is a University Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology and Nanomedicine, established with a $13.5 million grant from the NIH’s National Cancer Institute. The center is creating new drugs that target cancer cells, advancing technology to explain how nanocarriers deliver these drugs, and utilizing imaging tools to track how they travel through the body.

Torchilin is one of the original scholars in the field of targeted drug delivery, particularly noteworthy is his work developing liposomal carriers, vesicles made of a lipid bilayer similar to the one that surrounds human cells. This is the type of carrier used in one of the few targeted cancer treatments on the market. In 2012 he earned a lifetime achievement award for his work, and the following year he published research on a novel new concept for treating cancer combining the delivery of nanomedicines and nanoparticles in a single therapeutic approach.

Alex Makriyannis, the George D. Behrakis Endowed Chair, directs Northeastern’s Center for Drug Discovery. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill/Northeastern University

Alex Makriyannis, the George D. Behrakis Endowed Chair, directs Northeastern’s Center for Drug Discovery. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill/Northeastern University

NIH funding in top tier

Researchers in the School of Pharmacy in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences received more than $10 million in NIH funding in FY2014, which places the school in the top 10 nationwide in NIH funding among pharmacy schools at U.S. universities—and first among those at private U.S. universities—according to the American Association of Colleges and Pharmacy. The organization gathers research grant data on more than 130 schools of pharmacy nationwide.

“The fact that we are able to place so highly in NIH funding, not only as a private university, but also for not having our own academic medical center, says a great deal about our faculty, their research, and the support we are provided by Bouvé and Northeastern,” said David Zgarrick, professor and acting dean of the School of Pharmacy.

A new research thrust is blossoming

Associate professor Becky Briesacher was attracted to Northeastern for the support for researchers to innovate.

“That’s part of the reason I wanted to come here,” said Briesacher, who joined the school’s Department of Pharmacy and Health Systems Sciences in the fall of 2014. “It’s exciting, the idea that I’m helping to build something new.”

Associate professor Becky Briesacher is a nationally recognized health services researcher. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Associate professor Becky Briesacher is a nationally recognized health services researcher. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Briesacher, a nationally recognized health services researcher, focuses her work on prescription drug policy. She has two current NIH-funded projects, both of which focus on the nursing home setting. One project builds upon her earlier research that shed light on how nursing home residents’ cognitive, functional, and sensory deficits make it challenging for them to enroll in Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program. In this new study, she and her collaborators—which include associate clinical professor Carla Bouwmeester and associate professor Steven Pizer, who holds joint appointments in the School of Pharmacy and the Department of Economics—aim to look closer at the landscape of drug coverage in nursing homes, identify factors that influence Medicare Part D enrollment, and estimate how drug coverage influences the use of medications.

Briesacher’s other current NIH-funded project is another health policy evaluation, this one assessing the impact of a 2012 Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services initiative that included reducing the amount of antipsychotics administered to nursing home residents to manage dementia. She is collaborating with Devlin and associate professor Jane Saczynski on this project.

Interdisciplinary focus

Zgarrick noted the School of Pharmacy’s increasing emphasis on interdisciplinary collaborations and appointments, pointing to examples such as Briesacher’s grant with Pizer and the vast amount of research underway in the Center for Drug Discovery.

Amiji added that Northeastern’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, which is scheduled to open next year, will foster new and continued collaborative research in health—which is one of Northeastern’s three research pillars.

“Great science and great breakthroughs happen when you put a diverse group of people together,” Amiji said, “because they will come at the problem from multiple angles to produce the best solution.”

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