Given a choice, most people would prefer to take their medication in a pill, but that is not always an option. In order to be effective, some drugs must be injected directly into the body because they are not absorbed by the digestive system. Making more medications work in pill-form is the goal of a five-year, $5 million research agreement between the University of Maryland School of Medicine and ALZA Corporation, a world leader in drug delivery technologies based in Mountain View, California.
The research will focus on two proteins, known as zonulin and zot, which regulate the permeability of the intestine. "You could consider them gatekeepers. Zonulin and zot open the spaces between our cells, controlling what passes through our intestine," says Alessio Fasano, M.D., professor of pediatrics, medicine and physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children.
Under the agreement, negotiated by the University of Maryland Baltimore Office of Research and Development, researchers will try to determine whether proteins like zonulin and zot can be used as a tool to transport drugs that are not normally absorbed when taken orally. The University and ALZA have also entered into a separate licensing agreement that gives ALZA exclusive rights to patents related to this research.
"This public-private partnership with ALZA will allow researchers to develop practical applications for Dr. Fasano's research so that patients will benefit as quickly as possible," says David J. Ramsay, DM, DPhil, president of the University. Patients with hormone deficiencies, inflammatory bowel diseases and multiple sclerosis potentially could benefit from this research.
Zot is a toxin produced by the bacteria that cause cholera. Zonulin is produced naturally in the body. Both are proteins that act like keys to unlock a door. When they come in contact with matching receptors in the small intestine, the door opens. Larger molecules and proteins can then pass through junctions in between cells and ultimately into the bloodstream. When zot and zonulin are not present, the cell junctions close.
Dr. Fasano's research will determine whether these protein keys can be safely placed in a pill so that more medications can be delivered orally. "As a pediatrician, I don't like injections because my little patients don't like needles," says Dr. Fasano. "Moreover, injected drugs are not practical in some developing countries where access to sterile needles may be a problem."
"New therapeutic approaches and medications can be developed only with a groundwork of basic science research, and this agreement allows us to lay that important groundwork," says Donald E. Wilson, M.D., M.A.C.P., Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine.
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