A material perspective on delivering medicines in the body

Science Lives: Andreas Heise, associate professor of chemistry at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

Andreas Heise: "We are very interested in technologies like 3D-printing, where you build up layers of materials to make a structure"

Andreas Heise: "We are very interested in technologies like 3D-printing, where you build up layers of materials to make a structure"

 

You are interested in making molecules that can deliver medicines into the body. What do you do?
“We make polymers in our lab. Because we want to use them in the body we use naturally-occurring molecules called amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.

When nature makes proteins, the different amino acids are added stepwise in a specific sequence to make a pattern, but we will use just one or two amino acids and we throw them in a pot and make long chains called polypeptides in a matter of minutes.

You throw them in a pot? Is it that straightforward?
Pretty much, at least that step is. The more sophisticated stuff comes before and after that. Before making a polymer in the lab, we need to design it so that it will carry out a function in the body. And then once we have made it, we need to validate its structure and its properties, and of course we need to see how it works in practice, if it will indeed carry out the function we were aiming for.

Where might these polypeptide materials be used?
At the moment, we are working with a few collaborators here in RCSI, including Prof Fergal O’Brien’s lab which makes implants to help bones and cartilage regenerate after an injury and Prof Sally Ann Cryan’s group, who are making medicines that can be inhaled directly into the lungs.

All of our labs are on the same floor in our building, so the researchers all talk to each other and have coffee and so on, and it means our group can better understand how to design materials that will work in the body, and the other groups can learn from us about the types of material that are possible to make.

Recently we have worked on materials that can be included in bone implants to deliver genes to stem cells to help the bones heal even faster, and materials to help inhaled medicines get down into the lungs to fight infection or inflammation.

What are you excited about at the moment in your field?
We are very interested in technologies like 3D-printing, where you build up layers of materials to make a structure. This allows you to convert a relatively simple material into product with a lot more value and application. We have found that the polypeptides we make in the lab are printable, and these kinds of steps are becoming increasingly important.

Where did you work before coming to Ireland?
I originally studied chemistry in Germany and left after my PhD. I worked as a post-doc with IBM and Stanford, California, on polymers for the electronics industry. Then I worked in Holland in industry with a part-time academic post.

I moved to Ireland in 2008 and I got a Science Foundation Ireland Stokes Lectureship at Dublin City University, which was a great opportunity to start building my research here.

How do you take a break from research?
I am probably like many other researchers, in that it is hard to switch off from thinking about work, but I have a young family, so that means I need to. If you asked me what the last book I read was, it was probably Peppa Pig.”