A travel grant, funded by Campus Travel and Qantas, helps a UQ professor turn his research into reality
It was a feeling of helplessness that led University of Queensland academic, Dr Harendra (Harry) Parekh, to engineer a miniscule bubble – a ‘nanobubble’ – with the power to revolutionise the way medicine is administered for a whole host of diseases. Dr Parekh’s inability to give hope to family members suffering cancer inspired his development of the world-first nanobubble technology. The use of these bubbles in delivering medicine to target diseased internal tissue, now has potential to significantly improve both treatment outcomes and quality of life for patients around the globe.
Born in England, Dr Parekh completed his undergraduate Pharmacy degree at the University of Portsmouth, and in his final year embarked on a cancer project that ignited his fascination for research. “I began an internship as a pharmacist but quickly realised that I missed the laboratory,” Dr Parekh said. “I was intrigued by the way certain molecules had profound impacts on cancer cells, and how their actions could be improved.
“I had family members who were battling cancer and they looked to me for advice of better treatments. I felt helpless. I wanted to do something to change the situation, but I didn’t want to do ‘pie in the sky’ research. I wanted to deliver research that was translatable to clinical practice and could make a measurable difference in the near-term.”
Journey to Australia sets the path for innovation
Dr Parekh secured a PhD scholarship with the respected Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) at The University of Nottingham (UK). He spent four years honing his skills in medicinal chemistry, optimising conditions for the creation of peptide molecules that will underpin medicines of the next decade and beyond.
Receiving his PhD in 2002, Dr Parekh scoured the world for a research role, applying for positions including a post-doctoral research position at University of Queensland (UQ). Newly married, he and his wife felt lured by Australia and in early 2003 they embarked on a road trip that would seal their love of the country, in particular Queensland.
The Australian road trip set Dr Parekh on a course for
his ground-breaking work in nanobubbles.
Just three days into their journey, he was offered the UQ position – an event that could ultimately spark a revolution in modern medical science.
Bringing new vision to research at UQ
Taking up his post-doctoral position with UQ in May 2003, Dr Parekh spent two years researching macular degeneration and developing a range of carrier systems for the delivery of genes to cells of the eye. This experience highlighted the profound challenges and barriers to posterior eye delivery, and spurred Dr Parekh to develop smarter, more effective solutions for a disease that has become a significant burden on society, in particular the elderly population.
The doors then opened for Dr Parekh to take up a teaching and research academic role in UQ’s School of Pharmacy. With the then Head of School, Professor Nick Shaw, investing in a new laboratory at UQ’s St Lucia campus, Dr Parekh had the freedom to pursue his own ideas and truly innovate. He spent five years developing the facility, and building strategic alliances with researchers as well as recruiting PhD students, many of whom have progressed into senior roles in academia and the pharmaceutical industry overseas – a testimony to Dr Parekh’s excellence in teaching and research.
In 2010, UQ’s School of Pharmacy relocated to the $100m, state-of-the-art Pharmacy Australia Centre of Excellence (PACE) adjacent to Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital. Featuring the best of the best in teaching and research, this facility has allowed Dr Parekh – now a Senior Lecturer and Research Group Leader within UQ’s Health and Behavioural Sciences (HABS) Faculty – to attract the highest calibre of students, researchers and collaborators.
Setting the PACE in medicine delivery
At the PACE facility, Dr Parekh and his team have spent the past five years researching and pioneering a range of drug delivery systems, including the globally innovative nanobubble technology.
“I have long believed that the lack of efficiency and selectivity by which drugs are delivered to diseased tissue remained a key obstacle to achieving the desired clinical outcomes,” Dr Parekh said. “I have focused on improving the way we use existing drugs, firstly by better understanding the barriers the body presents to medicines, and then developing strategies to circumvent them, with the ultimate aim of preferentially delivering drugs to target (diseased) tissue within the body.
“Nanobubbles are essentially minute bubbles, a billionth of a metre in diameter, which contain a gas. However, consider a soft drink…if you leave it sitting it quickly loses its ‘fizz’, which is precisely the challenge we faced with nanobubbles. My team and I set about re-engineering the bubbles in a way that allows them to retain their gas, which is essential for enabling their tracking by ultrasound and also crucial for detonating them, again using ultrasound. We now have bubbles that are stable for many months, so can be transported around the world for potential use by millions of hospital patients.”
Drawing on Dr Parekh’s post-doctoral experience in drug delivery for posterior eye disease, his research team has focused on using the nanobubbles to more effectively treat and potentially cure age-related macular degeneration.
In collaboration with vision science experts, ophthalmologists and ultrasonics experts – to ensure the practical and clinical feasibility of the solution – the team has produced compelling evidence supporting the use of nanobubbles. “Our data shows that using conventional clinical techniques of injections into the eye, combined with the use of nanobubbles, we can rapidly push medicine to the back of the eye where it’s most needed,” Dr Parekh explained.
“Other diseases such as inoperable or metastatic cancer are also expected to benefit from this approach. The bubbles would allow clinicians to directly target internal tissue, via real-time tracking within the body using ultrasound. They could then be detonated on-demand using non-invasive ultrasound, so the drug is propelled into target diseased tissue. This can pave the way for significant drug dose reductions too, as virtually all the medicine is released when and where it’s needed, so side effects would also be drastically reduced. Imagine what this would mean for cancer patients and the future of how chemotherapy is delivered.
“Ahead lies enormous opportunity and potential to apply nanobubbles to a whole range of acute and chronic diseases,” Dr Parekh said. “I am already collaborating with researchers and industry specialists in areas such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Ultimately, I want these areas to be on equal footing with our highly progressed work into eye disease, but I can’t make this a reality without further public and private funding.”
Giving new hope to patients, the health system, and Australia
The benefits of nanobubbles are extraordinary.
For patients, they’ll provide a faster and safer way of delivering existing, approved medicines. “As the delivery is more targeted and accurate, we can vastly reduce the dosage and improve quality of life through fewer repeat treatments and lowering the severity and incidence of debilitating side effects,” Dr Parekh explains. “Patients can recover faster from each treatment, which means repeat doses can be administered sooner.
“The overall duration of cancer treatment for a patient could be
one month instead of six.”
Shortened treatment duration also means a reduction in medical expenses for patients, healthcare providers and the healthcare budget. For example, macular degeneration treatment currently costs as much as $2000 per injection, delivered monthly, and typically for a number of years. This could be reduced to $500 or even less per injection, with the frequency of injections also drastically reduced when using nanobubbles to deliver the medicine.
“Improved quality of life not only has a positive impact on the patient, this also extends to their families and carers,” Dr Parekh added.
For clinicians and hospital staff, the nanobubbles can help treat greater numbers of patients faster, which can free up beds and take pressure off healthcare budgets. “Part of my vision is to make hospital waiting lists a distant memory,” Dr Parekh says.
Showcasing the innovation borne out of UQ, the nanobubbles are also putting Queensland on the world map. Dr Parekh recently attended an international drug delivery conference in the USA, where he spoke to world-leading researchers about his work in eye disease. “They were excited by our technology and want to help take this product to the clinical market. This is a huge opportunity, not only for UQ and Queensland, but also for Australia,” he said.
The need for investment
Dr Parekh has developed the nanobubble technology with a view to developing a sustainable future for medicine delivery for all Australians.
“Our ageing population will create a major financial burden on the healthcare system that is already strained, and future medicines will be too costly for many patients. We need practical, cost effective, innovative solutions to deliver existing medicines. This can only be achieved through local and federal government, as well as industry investment, to help deliver healthcare in a smarter and more efficient manner – the bubble technology can help us achieve this on a number of levels.
“We now have genuine interest from industry and private equity companies in the US and Asia. But it’s vital that the foundation investment comes from private investors and government within Queensland and Australia, so our country can retain ownership of this technology, reinvesting its significant revenues back into the economy. If we can secure the initial financial backing locally, we can sell this ‘model’ of medicine delivery to the world.
“My team is already pursuing further development and validation of the bubble technology across a broad range of disease states, which will help attract offshore investors to give nanobubbles the global wings they deserve.
“Australia has a massive opportunity here, to train the next generation of research students, as well as doctors and nurses – worldwide – on the future administration of therapies using the nanobubble technology.
“This is the next major paradigm shift in the way we deliver medicine.”
“I continue to invest a lot of my own time and energy into raising broader awareness of nanobubbles and their immense potential, although it’s a team effort and I want to acknowledge the incredible fundraising efforts of Cass Conwell, our Faculty Advancement Manager. Cass has spearheaded UQ’s engagement with many local and national organisations and foundations to help put this technology firmly on their radar.”
Academic travel grant to help ‘connect brilliance’
Dr Parekh’s drive to increase awareness of the nanobubble technology has been bolstered with the Qantas sponsored travel grant, awarded by Campus Travel, Flight Centre Travel Group’s academic travel specialist.
“The travel grant will allow me to engage with potential investors, here and overseas, who are very interested in our technology,” he said. “It will help me work alongside respected executives in developing a commercial path for this unique discovery. The travel grant provides access to the Qantas domestic and international network, and opens up global opportunities that can potentially transform the world’s approach to the delivery of medicines in the near future.
“I am also hopeful that it will pave the way for other Australian organisations to support this initiative. I’m passionate about growing opportunities in a nation that is itself still growing. Australia and UQ have given so much to my family – including my wife and two boys who love and value this country – I feel indebted to give back everything I can. With government and private backing, there is so much more yet to be achieved, for a better Australia, for all Australians.”
To make a tax deductible donation to Dr Parekh’s research please visit this page http://www.uq.edu.au/pharmacy/harry-parekh.