Drug Delivery, Nanoscale

Behind the Nano Precision Pump, an implantable drug-delivery device for treating hepatitis C and other chronic illnesses, are (from left) Lily Peng, Kayte Fischer and Adam Mendelsohn, all in the Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering. PHOTO ABBY COHNBehind the Nano Precision Pump, an implantable drug-delivery device for treating hepatitis C and other chronic illnesses, are (from left) Lily Peng, Kayte Fischer and Adam Mendelsohn, all in the Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering. (Photo by Abby Cohn.)Roughly the size of a matchstick, a slender titanium tube could become a pint-sized weapon against chronic hepatitis C and a host of other debilitating diseases.

Three UCSF/UC Berkeley doctoral students are designing a tiny implantable device capable of delivering steady and minute quantities of potent drugs into the bloodstream. The Nano Precision Pump could reduce serious side effects caused by injections of far larger doses of medicine—improving patient quality of life, compliance and cure rates, the students say.

“This is a relatively simple design,” says Adam Mendelsohn, one of the trio from the Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering developing the drug delivery device. Joining Mendelsohn in the venture are Kayte Fischer and Lily Peng, an M.D./Ph.D. student. All three study with Professor Tejal Desai (Ph.D.’98 BioE) in her Therapeutic Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory at the UCSF Mission Bay Campus.

Their innovative approach calls for packing drug molecules in a reservoir inside the small tube and dispensing them through a nanoporous membrane made of titania, also known as titanium dioxide. Invented by Pennsylvania State University electrical engineering professor Craig Grimes, the mesh-like sheet contains a network of nanoscale tubes barely larger than the molecules themselves.  

Without any moving parts, the pump could potentially dispense a three-month supply of drugs by diffusion. “The nanoporous membrane allows for constant-rate delivery, passively,” says Mendelsohn, 27. He likens the flow to moviegoers leaving a theater through just a few exit doors. 

The device would be inserted under the skin in a patient’s upper arm during a 10- to 15-minute outpatient procedure. Because the device is made of titanium and titanium oxide— widely used biocompatible materials—the team envisions few complications. It is easily removed and replaced if a drug refill is needed.

Mendelsohn demonstrates where the device would be implanted in a patient’s upper arm. Made of biocompatible materials, the device could easily be removed and replaced when a drug refill is needed. PHOTO ABBY COHN Mendelsohn demonstrates where the device would be implanted in a patient’s upper arm. Made of biocompatible materials, the device could easily be removed and replaced when a drug refill is needed. (Photo by Abby Cohn.)Among those who stand to benefit most from the implantable device are patients suffering from chronic hepatitis C. The long-term illness can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and even death. In the United States, the current treatment for some 80,000 patients involves a yearlong course of weekly shots with interferon, a natural protein that often causes severe flu-like symptoms for days and can force weakened patients to quit their jobs. “It’s pretty brutal,” says Peng, 25. “We’re trying to give people the amount of medicine that is necessary without so many side effects.”

The implantable pump might also be used to treat patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, addiction and mental illnesses, and blood clotting disorders. The nanotubes could easily be scaled to fit the specific drug proteins associated with each therapy. “We believe we can improve the quality of life for patients who are candidates,” Mendelsohn says.

Each of the students is pursuing the venture as a side project to their dissertation research. They plan to seek FDA approval for the device and begin initial testing later this year. Following graduation, they hope to officially launch a startup called Nano Precision Medical. “It’s a big market, a big unmet need,” says Fischer, 25.

Desai, a scientific advisor on the project, praised her students’ efforts. “Their project integrates nanotechnology, medical device design and pharmacology to improve treatment options for patients with chronic illnesses,” she says. Marion Peters, chief of hepatology research at UCSF and a clinical advisor to the team, describes the pump as “a very exciting idea.”

The pump’s tiny nanoporous membrane is made of titania nanotubes, which would be scaled to fit the size of the drug proteins used to treat specific diseases, slowly dispensing a three-month supply of medication via diffusion. PHOTO ABBY COHN The pump’s tiny nanoporous membrane is made of titania nanotubes, which would be scaled to fit the size of the drug proteins used to treat specific diseases, slowly dispensing a three-month supply of medication via diffusion. (Photo by Abby Cohn.)Already, the concept has captured a string of awards, along with a $90,000 grant from an angel investor. Most recently, the device took first prize and won the trade show early this month at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology 2009 MBA Business Plan Competition. It also tied for first place at the 2008 UC Berkeley Business Plan Competition, finished second at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Innovation Showcase in Boston and was a winner in Berkeley’s 2008 Venture Lab Competition.

Appropriately enough, the inspiration for the pump began with a competition. In 2007, Fischer was serving as president of the Berkeley Nanotechnology Club, which was staging a contest. “I was begging people to compete,” she recalls. Peng, already working with the nanoporous membranes, approached Mendelsohn and asked, “Hey Adam, do you want to do something?” The project quickly coalesced.

In their device, the three lab mates and friends see strong medical and commercial potential. “I think it’s very exciting to be at the ground stage of developing a medical device and see how it comes out,” says Peng.