Synthetic cells could be the future of drug delivery

In the world of drug development, honing an effective molecule is just the first step. As everyone in the drug delivery business knows, issues like solubility, permeability and targeting can be vexing challenges to getting treatment where it needs to go. But what if you could deliver drugs the same way the body dispatches white blood cells to fight infection, or the same way a virus proliferates throughout the body?

That's what researchers at U.S. universities are working on, aiming to develop synthetic cells that could target ailments and release drugs to treat them. As Popular Mechanics reports, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania are using plastics to build artificial white blood cells called leuko-polymersomes, which would be guided by synthetic molecules designed to mimic the natural receptors white blood cells use to find enflamed tissues and stick to them.

Once the lab-created cell reaches its target, it of course needs to release its drug contents, and the researchers have found that UV light could spur the plastic cell casing to break apart and let loose its payload. While the technology may be years away from implementation, the scientists behind it believe that it could lead to a new way to treat tumors and autoimmune disorders.

Over at UCLA, researchers are taking a similar approach with a less benevolent catalyst: the virus. Viruses are incredibly good at traversing the body, latching onto cells and implanting their RNA to reproduce, so scientists are working to synthesize virus-like drug delivery vessels that could work the same way.

Of course, to your body, all viruses are bad viruses, so the researchers are trying to find a workaround to the immune system's natural defenses. They're hoping that, because their synthetic viruses are coated in lab-created amino acids, the body won't catch on that it's being invaded, and the artificial infection can deliver drugs or genes to fight disease and disorder.

- read the Popular Mechanics article
- check out the UPenn research