University of Illinois Researchers Win $300,000 Falk Award to Improve MS Drug Delivery

Alice Melão, MSc avatar

by Alice Melão, MSc |

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FALK Catalyst award

A research team at the University of Illinois College of Medicine (UIC) has received $300,000 from the Falk Medical Research Trust to develop a novel drug delivery method that could improve the treatment of patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Established in 1979, the Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust – Catalyst Award is granted every year to a dozen U.S. research groups. It provides one year of funding to high-risk, high-reward projects to complete preliminary studies.

Catalyst Program winners who achieve their goals can then enroll in the Falk Transformational Awards Program, which offers $1 million for two years to further support the projects.

The UIC team, led by Ernesto Bongarzone and Maria Givogri, hope to transform naturally occurring small vesicles released by several cell types into drug targeted delivery vehicles.

“Extracellular vesicles are secreted by lots of cells, and they closely reflect the identity of the cell from which they came,” anatomy and cell biology professor Bongarzone said in a UIC news release. “If we can manipulate these vesicles to fuse with a specific cell type and carry a therapeutic agent or drug, they can be a powerful weapon against a variety of diseases.”

Cells commonly use these vesicles to communicate with each other. They pack inside the vesicles with many cell products, like proteins and small RNA molecules, then release them into the bloodstream and cerebrospinal fluid. These vesicles can travel to distant places in the body until they find and fuse with their target cell, dumping their cargo.

“Using extracellular vesicles lets us send drugs across the blood-brain barrier, which many other therapeutic agents cannot cross,” Bongarzone said. “Another benefit is that we can take mesenchymal stem cells from a patient and use them to generate vesicles for drug delivery, which will remove issues of rejection.”

However, the content of vesicles may not always be good, as they have been shown to play a role in spreading cancer, said fellow anatomy and cell biology professor Givogri. “There is much more to learn about how they function in this way,” she added.

The team will use the Catalyst Award to test different methods of vesicles production from mesenchymal stem cells. They will also engineer these vesicles to specifically target oligodendrocytes in the brain and spinal cord. Oligodendrocytes are cells that specialize in producing the nerve cell’s protective myelin layer.

The efficacy and safety of this new delivery method will be tested in mice.

After completing these preliminary studies, the team expects to apply for further funding. The UIC researchers plan to use the vesicles to transport and deliver small RNA molecules, called microRNAs, that can boost myelin production.

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