Nanometre-sized drug holds promise for burns treatment

Scientists develop experimental drug as a topical ointment

A group of scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harvard Medical School and others in the US and Japan have developed a low cost, nanometre-sized drug to treat chronic wounds, such as diabetic foot ulcers or burns.

Diabetes affects nearly 3% of the world’s population. Poor blood circulation arising from the disease can result in skin wounds, which do not heal, causing pain, infection and sometimes amputation of limbs.

Several proteins, called growth factors, have been found to speed up the healing process, however purifying these growth factor proteins is expensive, and they do not last long on the injured site.

The researchers at Hebrew University and Harvard have now used genetic engineering to produce a ‘robotic’ growth factor protein that responds to temperature. Increasing the temperature causes dozens of these proteins to fold together into a nanoparticle that is more than 200 times smaller than a single hair.

This behaviour simplifies protein purification, making it inexpensive to produce. It also enables the growth factor to be confined and to remain at the burn or wound site.

The scientists describe their discovery as robotic, since just as robots are machines that respond to their environment by carrying out a specific activity, so too the protein they have developed responds and reacts to heat.

The experimental drug, which has been developed as a topical ointment, has been patented and thus far has been used to treat chronic wounds in diabetic mice, dramatically increasing the healing rate. The goal is to proceed to human clinical trials after future tests and refinements.

An article on the project has been published online in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US). The authors are Yaakov Nahmias, director of the Center for Bioengineering in the Service of Humanity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Zaki Megeed, Robert Sheridan and Martin Yarmush of the Harvard Medical School and Shriners Hospitals for Children; Piyush Koria of the University of South Florida; and Hiroshi Yagi and Yuko Kitagawa of the Keio University School of Medicine in Japan.