Precision medicine - Drug delivery expert sees alternative to blanket chemotherapy

Paraphrasing the old movie line, pharmaceutical scientists are increasingly trying to answer the question, “What’s a good drug like you doing in a place like this?”

Their focus is on keeping good drugs out of places they shouldn’t be, like healthy cells, and have them target only the unhealthy cells. One of the nation’s leading experts on drug delivery will give a message targeted to the general public when he delivers the sixth-annual Francis Miller Lecture for the South Dakota State University College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions at the South Dakota Art Museum auditorium at 7 p.m. April 2.

Philip Low, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Purdue University, will give the talk, “A New Generation of Smart Medicines that Accumulate Primarily in Diseased Cells.”

For years, the standard procedure with chemotherapy has sent “good drugs to the wrong places. Cancer drugs are delivered indiscriminately to every cell of the body. The consequences are obvious—hair falls out, the patient gets nauseous and bone marrow is suppressed, leading to immune deficiency and increased susceptibility to infections.

“We want to find a smart molecule to take a good drug to the right place,” Low said.

Eight drugs now in trials

Actually, Low and team of 25 at his Purdue lab have found several, which can be targeted not only to kill cancer cells but also to locate cancer cells for surgical removal by noninvasive imaging. He has eight drugs undergoing clinical trials and has formed four companies to help develop the drugs.

One particular targeting ligand, or homing molecule, is in its final phase of clinical trials and has been given fast track by the Food and Drug Administration.

“We should be done with Phase III in a year and then we’ll submit to the FDA for formal approval. It should be out and available in two years,” said Low, who has been focusing on novel methods for drug delivery since arriving at Purdue in 1976 after completing a one-year postdoctoral position at the University of Massachuetts.

Competing methods in drug delivery

Precision medicine has become an increasingly popular field for laboratory scientists.

Others in the field are working with antibodies as a drug-delivery agent and the major strategy focuses on creating more specific drugs that block only the proteins in diseased cells while ignoring healthy cells, Low explained.

However, “Our area is gradually going to take over,” Low predicted. “It takes a while for the technology to become fully development and optimized. The molecules we’re designing are quite easy to produce in a production facility. They’re much more stable than antibodies and other forms of medicine. They’re easier to administer by the doctors. There are a lot of advantages to them.”

The targeting ligand produced in Low’s lab is 150 times smaller than an antibody, making them cheaper, easier to make and easier for them to penetrate the cell, Low said.

He noted the lab also has broadened the applications in which the targeting ligands can be used. Currently, there are clinical trials underway in Southeast Asia for fighting malaria “and they’re working beautifully” and clinical trials begin in April in Ohio to fight sickle cell anemia. Previous work has also focused on Crohn’s disease, arthritis and autoimmune diseases.

Using targeted fluorescence imaging in cancer surgery has boosted the number of cancer cells removed and increased survival rates, Low said. 

Scientific lecture also scheduled

In addition to his talk to the general public, Low will deliver the scientific lecture “Ligand-targeted Imaging and Therapeutic Agents for Cancer, Autoimmune and Infectious Diseases” at 3 p.m. April 2 at the Avera Health and Science Center Room 043.

“This is a great opportunity for our faculty and students to meet with a man who has been pre-eminent in drug delivery research for four decades,” according to Xiangming Guan, assistant dean for research in the College of Pharmacy and coordinator of the Francis J. “Johnny” Miller Lecture, which was created by funds from his endowment.

Miller was a longtime pharmacist and drugstore owner in Redfield and Huron as well as in his hometown of Gettysburg.

Cancer is one of the major research focus areas in the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions. The Francis Miller lectureship was established to bring leading cancer researchers to the campus and to provide opportunity for the faculty, students and the public to learn from leading scientists.

For more information on the public lecture, contact Guan at (605) 688-5314 or


About South Dakota State University
Founded in 1881, South Dakota State University is the state’s Morrill Act land-grant institution as well as its largest, most comprehensive school of higher education. SDSU confers degrees from six different colleges representing more than 200 majors, minors and specializations. The institution also offers 36 master’s degree programs, 15 Ph.D. and two professional programs.

The work of the university is carried out on a residential campus in Brookings, at sites in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City, and through Extension offices and Agricultural Experiment Station research sites across the state.