Carnegie Mellon University
September 19, 2018

CMU Workshop Will Seek to Translate 'Physics to Pharma' for Inhaled Drugs

By Ben Panko

A group of 13 influential engineering and medical researchers will gather at Carnegie Mellon this weekend to figure out how to translate groundbreaking physics and engineering research into clinical studies that could lead to new therapies for respiratory conditions.

Patients with obstructive lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis often use inhaled aerosols to take crucial medications that can help ease their symptoms and prevent or treat life-threatening respiratory infections. However, these diseases can cause mucus buildup that makes it difficult for aerosols to reach all of the passages of the lungs, known as bronchi and bronchioles. Cystic fibrosis patients often die due to infections in these passages where antibiotics can't reach.

Researchers with the Mellon College of Science and the University of Pittsburgh have spent the last decade working to deliver these drugs better. They've found that a class of compounds called surfactants, compounds that naturally migrate to liquid-air interfaces, have great potential to improve the spread of aerosols within the lungs. Surfactants reduce the surface tension of liquids, the force that holds molecules like those in a water droplet together. By adding these compounds to inhaled drugs in laboratory experiments, the researchers have found that they can help aerosolized drugs spread along liquid surfaces that mimic the liquid lining of the lung’s airways.

"It's time to take these ideas and translate them," said Professor of Physics Steve Garoff, referring to the process of taking basic research and moving toward testing at the clinical level in human patients. However, there is a divide between how science and engineering researchers and clinical researchers approach the problem, Garoff notes. This complicates translating the work, a process which is often difficult. Showing a clear path to translation will attract the attention of federal agencies, foundations and private companies which might fund such translational studies.

To develop that path, Garoff, Robert Tilton and Todd Przybycien, professors of chemical and biomedical engineering, and Timothy Corcoran, associate professor of medicine and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, have organized a workshop titled "Physics to Pharma: Using Surfactant Driven Flows to Improve Inhaled Therapies." The workshop is funded by the DSF Charitable Foundation.

 "If we're going to move this to translation, we need better appreciation, communication and cooperation," Garoff said.