‘We can manipulate peptides to carry different medicines’

Research insight: Dr Garry Laverty of school of pharmacy, Queen’s University Belfast

What do you work on?

In our lab we make healthcare materials composed of peptides. Peptides are the building blocks of proteins and tissue within the body, and we use those building blocks to design and make materials, such as hydrogels that can deliver medicines in the body or help to heal wounds or kill bacteria. We call these biofunctional materials, or simply materials with a biological function.

What are the advantages of using peptides to build these materials?

Peptides are really versatile. We can modify their structure slightly in the lab to alter their properties, a bit like building something out of different Lego blocks. We can also manipulate the peptides to carry different medicines or have some other desirable property to treat or prevent disease.

Where have you been applying your innovations?

We have done a lot of work on developing anti-microbial materials and that is still an area of interest for us. We have also had success, thanks to funding from the Wellcome Trust, in researching hydrogel material for delivering anti-viral drugs for people with HIV.

The idea is that you inject the "peptide-plus-drug" into the body and it forms a drug releasing hydrogel implant under the skin that works for several weeks, rather than people having to take multiple daily pills. We were just awarded funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to continue that work.

What trends have you seen in research in your area in recent years?

One of the big things I have seen is that research funders want to know about the potential and actual impact of the research. In my area, which is pharmacy, that means thinking about how the idea you have for a project will affect patients in the future, and how to make that happen.

What advice have you for people looking for funding for research?

Keep it simple at the start. When you are applying for funding, you want to focus on the core idea and explain it in language that everyone can understand. It’s easy to start using complicated terms – you know what they mean and they sound important – but the person reviewing your application might not know what they mean.

What would you tell people about innovation?

That it is hard work! People can have entrepreneurial streaks and be naturally inclined to innovate, but at the end of the day you have to work at it and it is really important to keep going. You might have days when you think you won’t get funded or your work won’t be published, but keep coming up with new ideas and working at it. Stick with it.

In conversation with Claire O’Connell

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