01.12.2016

Endogenous nano-particles acting as transporters for antibiotics

New BMBF junior research group directed by Gregor Fuhrmann to investigate the specific targeting of medications to pathogens inside the body

Dr Gregor Fuhrmann heads the new junior research group at the Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland (HIPS). Image: G. Fuhrmann© G. FuhrmannDr Gregor Fuhrmann heads the new junior research group at the Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland (HIPS). Image: G. FuhrmannBacteria are increasingly developing resistance to the common antibiotics – not least because of the excessive and sometimes incorrect use of these medications. Moreover, antibiotics can have unpleasant side effects as they also kill beneficial bacteria. Dr Gregor Fuhrmann, a pharmacist and scientist at the Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland (HIPS), aims to develop a technology that allows antibiotics to be transported specifically to pathogenic bacteria inside the body. This would improve the useful effect and at the same time minimise the adverse effects. Fuhrmann just received a grant from the "NanoMatFutur" programme of the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), which will be used to set up a junior research group and implement his research proposals. The HIPS is a joint facility of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig and Saarland University (UdS) in Saarbrücken.

The discovery of penicillin in the 1920s was a milestone in the treatment of infectious diseases caused by bacteria. Although more antibiotics were discovered in subsequent decades, the first resistance to antibiotics also began to spread amongst bacteria. Meanwhile, many common antibiotics have lost their high efficacy since numerous bacterial pathogens have become resistant to them. Up to 25,000 people in Europe alone lose their lives because of an infection with multi-resistant germs. Moreover, new antibiotic treatments are often associated with strong adverse effects, for example due to the destruction of the beneficial bacteria in the intestines. If antibiotics were to only reach the pathogenic bacteria, their adverse effects would be significantly reduced and the efficiency of the treatment would be increased. Gregor Fuhrmann, a scientist from the department "Drug Delivery" of Prof Claus-Michael Lehr at the HIPS, aims to pursue this approach. The Federal Ministry for Education and Research awarded Fuhrmann a grant of €2.1 million over the course of five years, which he will use to set up a new junior research group called "Biogenic Nanotherapeutics" starting immediately.

"I'm very grateful for the opportunity to set up my junior research group at the HIPS," Gregor Fuhrmann said. "We aim to develop a natural drug carrier system for antibiotics that is based on so-called extracellular vesicles." These vesicles are tiny bubbles discharged by cells of the body for specific communication with other cells. These vesicles are not only targeted at other body cells, but are also used in the defence against bacteria. Under natural conditions, these vesicles contain messenger substances whose role is to transmit information and to initiate physiological processes in the body. Fuhrmann and his junior research group aim to utilise this endogenous transport pathway to improve the delivery of antibiotic agents to pathogenic bacteria as a means of fighting these bacteria.

"There are already some initial preclinical applications for the specific transport of agents by means of extracellular vesicles in cancer and regenerative medicine, but the systematic investigation of these vesicles as a drug carrier in the field of infectious diseases is unique," says Rolf Müller, who is the executive director of the HIPS. "I'm very glad that the BMBF gives Gregor Fuhrmann the opportunity to implement this innovative research project by setting up his junior research group."

Extracellular vesicles were long thought to be nothing more than degradation products of cells. Only in recent years, their role in various physiological and pathological processes has been studied in more detail. Fuhrmann aims to isolate vesicles of a range of cells, to characterise them in detail and to load them with antibiotic agents. The vesicles should then migrate specifically to locations where there is an infection and release their antibiotic load. The investigations will use, amongst other techniques, the latest real-time microscopy visualising interactions of the vesicles with bacteria. A large range of bacterial strains is available at the HIPS as possible sources of suitable vesicles, because bacteria also utilise vesicles for interaction and defence. "The HIPS provides optimal conditions for the project," says Gregor Fuhrmann. "Its excellent infrastructure combined with the sound experience in infection and pharmaceutical research makes this institute an extraordinary research location in Germany and Europe."

The scientific director of the HZI, Prof Dirk Heinz, also welcomes the granting decision of the BMBF: "I'm very glad that we can set up a new junior research group at the HIPS to establish this research project that has great innovative potential for modern infection research. I congratulate Gregor Fuhrmann on the successful application for these research funds."

The Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI)

Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany, are engaged in the study of different mechanisms of infection and of the body’s response to infection. Helping to improve the scientific community’s understanding of a given bacterium’s or virus’ pathogenicity is key to developing effective new treatments and vaccines. www.helmholtz-hzi.de/en

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