Our discovery can help cancer patients

Amarnath Maitra , professor in the department of chemistry, University of Delhi, has developed a new way of administering drugs to the human body. He spoke to Nidhi Jamwal on his discovery

Published: Friday 31 March 2000

What is the function of the smallest synthetic polymer particle that you have developed?
The smallest synthetic polymer particle can bring about a breakthrough in the way drugs are administered. It can specially be very useful in cancer treatment. The particle couriers drugs to the right place in the body. But for doing so, one has to understand the functioning of the human body. When we take any drug, it enters our bloodstream. Since the body does not understand that the drug is for its own good, it views the drug as an unwanted foreign body.

There is a mechanism in the human body called the Reticulo Endothelial System ( res ) by which the foreign particles are thrown out of the body and the liver plays a major role in doing so. Thus, any medicine that has to make the right effect in the body has to avoid going to the liver and getting recognised by res . The drug must also be hydrophilic (attracting water) in nature because res recognises only hydrophobic (water repelling) elements. The drug should also be administered as a very small particle so that it circulates in the human body for a longer period and is absorbed properly before it is thrown out of the body.

Since the size of the synthetic polymer is smaller than 100 nanometer, it can circulate in the bloodstream for a longer period, before it is discarded from the body.

What effect will it have on cancer treatment?
It is a fact that more patients die due to the side-effects of chemotherapy than due to cancer. The drugs that are given to kill the cancerous cells often enter the normal cells and kill them too. This is because the drug does not know where to go and which cells to kill. The particle that we have developed has the ability to overcome these basic hurdles in cancer treatment. The cancer drug can be put inside the particle that we have developed. Since the particle has all the properties to avoid getting recognised by the res , it will enter the arterial system in the human body.

This arterial system is porous around the cancerous cells. So when this particle along with the drug hidden in it, comes in contact with the cancerous cells it is directed towards the Liposomes in the cancerous cells (that guard the cell against the foreign bodies). Liposomes, thinking the nanoparticles to be foreign particle break it. This breakage paves the way for the release of the drug from the nanoparticle that ultimately kills the cancerous cells.

How did you manage to do it with the level of technology we have in India? Where did the funds come from?
In the beginning we worked on our own -- the preliminary experiments were conducted in the laboratories at the Delhi University for over three years. But as the experiments progressed, we needed money to update the laboratory. We contacted the department of biotechnology. After being satisfied with our findings, the department provided us with the funds.

Why have you applied for a joint US patent?
We applied for a joint us patent because both the department of chemistry and the department of biotechnology were involved in the process. It is a very good thing that the Indian government now encourages scientists to file patents and bears the cost of the whole procedure too. We have also filed joint patents in Japan, India and in some European countries.

Why have you sold your finding to Dabur?
Dabur was the only company which showed interest in our finding and approached us. The company is also the second-largest manufacturer of the anti-cancer drug, Taxol. I am now working along with scientists from Dabur to explore the potential of the process in preparing anti-cancer drugs for cancer patients.

How will the polymer be of help to the common person?
When a doctor prescribes a 500 milligramme (mg) dosage of an antibiotic, the patient may not really need the entire amount. In fact, the patient may just need around 5-10 mg. When you pop in a pill, the medicine is scattered throughout the body and only a small amount reaches the specific spot where the medicine is required. This often leads to side-effects.

Now, if we administer the drug the way I have explained above, the common person will have to take only a small amount of the drug and will also have no side-effects. Secondly, since the drug will stay in the blood for a longer period, it will have a quick effect. Thirdly, it might lead to a revolution in cancer treatment. We can save the lives of those people who die due to the side-effects of cancer treatment.

What are your future plans?
We will continue to work on nanoparticles and develop an effective anti-cancer drug. We are also working on gene targeting and enzyme therapy. We have already developed-neem products such as neem cream and neem oil.

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