Academy Research Fellow, Adjunct Professor Hélder A. Santos (b. 1981) is a talented and internationally renowned researcher in the field of pharmaceutical nanotechnology and nanomedicines. The multicultural research team under his direction is one of the European pioneers in developing targeted nanomedicines made of porous silicon (PSi) biomaterials. The team’s work has opened up new vistas for the use of nanomaterials in biomedicine and for their application in the treatment of different diseases.
Santos and his team are exploring ways in which to modify nanodrugs so that they can reach their targets in sick tissue or in sick cells as effectively as possible. Team members are combining microfluidics and other methods in exceptional ways in order to advance the development of innovative nanodrugs for the treatment of cancer, diabetes and heart diseases. The technique they have developed has potentially highly significant social impact. The targeted delivery of drugs can help save human lives, improve the quality of life of large numbers of people, and reduce the costs of treatments.
“Our role is to engineer small, porous nanoparticles that can deliver drugs to different parts of the body at the exact right place and at the exact right time – and then disappear once they have done their job.”
Made from biodegradable porous silicon, these nanoparticles are like sugar cubes, Santos says: the medicine is put inside the nanomaterial, and then it dissolves and vanishes from the body once the medicine has been delivered.
Traditional, existing drugs today will usually spread throughout the body, so a drug intended to treat a liver disease, for instance, will also affect other organs or cells. This may cause side effects or reduce the efficacy of the drug. If the drug could be delivered exclusively to its primary target, it would be possible to use smaller amounts of new and more effective medicines. The targeted delivery within the body of not only medical substances but also tracers has major significance for medical imaging: the results would be more accurate, costs would be reduced, patient comfort improved and potential adverse side effects would decrease. This would be particularly beneficial in the treatment of cancer as imaging and medication could be directly targeted at the tumour tissue.
“This is very much a multidisciplinary effort in that we need material scientists to develop a nanomaterial that is porous and soluble; we need pharmacists to develop the actual medicine; and we need engineers who can integrate these two worlds.”
Santos received European Research Council Starting Grant funding for his research in 2013.