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Prescriptions of Promise

With their advancements in drug discovery and delivery, three professors are leading the charge to detect and battle serious health problems.
by O.K. Carter • Illustration by Harry Campbell

Whether patients live or die often depends on their medical treatment, but too many pharmaceuticals produce side effects that slow healing. Researchers Daniel Armstrong, Robert Magnusson, and Kytai Nguyen are devising novel methods to diagnose illnesses and develop and deliver drugs with life-saving potential.

Dr. Armstrong’s chemical breakthroughs have improved the way pharmaceutical companies create drugs, thus aiding disease identification and treatment. Dr. Magnusson’s drug test kits can help with early cancer detection and numerous health screenings. Dr. Nguyen’s nanoparticle drug-delivery systems show promise in assisting cancer, lung, and heart patients. The researchers have garnered millions of dollars in funding and earned their fields’ most prestigious honors.

“They are great examples of how UT Arlington researchers work diligently to help people live longer, healthier, and happier lives,” Vice President for Research Carolyn Cason says. “They are truly dedicated to turning their ideas into products and systems that benefit society.”

Team Chemistry

For Armstrong that means catching bad behavior in the sports world. He and graduate student Hongyue Guo recently unveiled a way to test for performance-enhancing drugs that could be up to a thousand times more sensitive than present tests.

“Our goal is to develop ultra-sensitive methods that will extend the window of detection,” says Armstrong, the University’s Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry, “and we may have developed one of the most sensitive methods in the world.”

When testing athletes, technicians use mass spectrometry to find bits of drugs in blood, urine, or other fluids after the body breaks down the substances. Armstrong’s method, called paired ion electrospray ionization, gathers drug bits together, making them easier to detect.

Xi’an Jiaotong University

Lab Work
Graduate student Lillian Frink researches drug purity under the direction of Daniel Armstrong.

Renowned for his work in chemical separations, Armstrong and his team are leading efforts to find a more accurate way to measure water content in pharmaceuticals—a major quality issue for drug manufacturers. Water content can affect the stability and shelf life of a drug and, when it’s too high, cause microbial growth. The new technique could be a hundred times more sensitive than a popular current practice.

“The analysis for water in many consumer products, including drugs, is one of the most required tests done in the world,” Armstrong says. “Current methods have many shortcomings, but I believe our new ionic liquid method offers improvements.”

He also has investigated DMAA, a popular sports supplement embroiled in controversy involving professional athletes and even the Army. His team found it unlikely that DMAA comes from the geranium plant or its extracted oil, as companies have claimed.

Armstrong casually dismisses being ranked No. 16 on The Analytical Scientist magazine’s 2013 list of the world’s most influential people in analytical sciences. His vita is a roll call of chemistry’s highest honors, including being named a 2013 fellow of the American Chemical Society.

He holds 23 U.S. and international patents and has written more than 550 scientific publications, including one book and 29 book chapters. He founded a syndicated National Public Radio show on science and has mentored more than 100 graduate students, many of whom were the first in their families to pursue college degrees.

“Basically, I do what I find interesting,” he says. “My main motivation has always been to develop and explain things that are new, interesting, and potentially useful.”

But research is only part of Armstrong’s job.

“The rest is teaching. That includes not just lecturing but helping students do clear scientific writing and speaking. It means answering questions about their research and techniques for coming up with their own ideas, as well as working in collaboration. That’s just as rewarding as the research, perhaps more so.”

Pioneering Platform

From his office in Nedderman Hall, Robert Magnusson flips a small device in his fingers. About the width of a dime, it resembles a tray loaded with tiny petri dishes. It’s actually a nanostructured sensor platform capable of identifying chemicals and their characteristics at the nano level with extreme accuracy.

Xi’an Jiaotong University

Closer Look
Robert Magnusson and Ph.D. student Manoj Niraula examine a nanophotonic chip.

The patented platform—one of more than 25 patents Magnusson holds—is in commercial use by Resonant Sensors Inc., a company he co-founded with alumna Debra Wawro Weidanz. In simple terms, it works like this: A clinician places the biological materials to be tested on the sensor and, based on the resulting color changes in the nanostructures, analyzes the bioreaction.

“There are clearly applications of the technology to all kinds of diseases, for example identifying biomarkers for specific types of cancer to expedite diagnosis,” Magnusson says. “While some medical applications may take many years to be approved, there are other fields in which our sensors can be useful right away. These include veterinary medicine, drug research and development, and environmental monitoring.”

To better understand the scale of the product, Magnusson says imagine thousands of sensors fitting in a space the size of a fingernail. The antibody-loaded test kits can do a thorough, almost immediate health analysis.

“This is a unique technology,” the Iceland native says. “I call it the ‘complete biosensor’ because it quantifies all aspects of a given bioreaction in every spot on the biochip in real time. Competing sensors lack this ability.”

Magnusson holds UT Arlington’s Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics. A member of the elite National Academy of Inventors, he leads UT Arlington’s Nanophotonics Device Group, which pursues theoretical and experimental research in periodic nanostructures, nanolithography, nanoelectronics, nanoplasmonics, and optical bio- and chemical sensors. He’s adept at moving research from the lab to the marketplace, one reason the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers named him a 2014 IEEE fellow.

Our goal is to develop ultra-sensitive methods that will extend the window of detection, and we may have developed one of the most sensitive methods in the world.

He is currently working with his graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on new display technology, solar absorbers, and semiconductor lasers. He envisions a cellphone-sized, self-contained advanced sensor platform.

“This technology would be a leap forward in personalized medicine and in-field medical screening,” he says, “with test results achieved in just a few minutes.”

Delivering Hope

With an equally keen focus on the future, Kytai Nguyen is developing nano-based medical treatments to battle lung and prostate cancer and help heart patients heal arteries damaged by angioplasty procedures. The bioengineering associate professor concentrates on drug delivery using nanoparticles targeted to the affected areas.

The particles are incorporated with a protein or biomolecule that is attracted to a particular cellular structure. Once they arrive, the nanoparticles slowly deteriorate, releasing a medication over days or weeks before being eliminated by normal body processes.

“It is specific treatment for a specific area as opposed to having to medicate the whole body, as would occur in traditional chemotherapy,” Nguyen says. “The outcome should be maximum efficiency with the least damage to the patient.”

Xi’an Jiaotong University

Special Delivery
Kytai Nguyen’s nanoparticle drug-delivery systems show promise in assisting cancer, lung, and heart patients.

Armed with a $1.4 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, Nguyen is creating a nanoparticle system to shore up arterial walls following angioplasty and stenting procedures to treat coronary arterial disease. Since a million Americans a year undergo such procedures, her work could have vast implications.

Angioplasty expands arteries using a balloon-like device, allowing blood to flow more easily but often damaging the arterial wall. If the wall repairs itself with larger, smooth muscle cells, more blockage will occur. This arterial narrowing is called restenosis. Nguyen’s nanoparticles attract stem cells from the blood, resulting in repairs by smaller, smoother endothelial cells that serve as a natural barrier.

“It’s just like Mother Nature intended,” she says. “A lot of what we do is designed to encourage the body to fix itself.” Through another NIH-funded project, Nguyen is teaming with a UT Southwestern Medical Center colleague to develop a nanoparticle drug-delivery system that will stimulate lung growth and function after partial lung removal or destructive lung disease. The work could offer an alternative to transplantation.

“The frustration is that it can take decades to gain Food and Drug Administration approval for a treatment as we move from the lab to small animals and then larger animals, and from small groups of human patients to larger groups. For example, we’re just now using a cancer treatment drug that took 30 years to get FDA approval. I’m convinced that the potential for nano treatments is massive and lifesaving. But when it comes to medicine, the proof of safety and effectiveness has to come first.”

Like Armstrong and Magnusson, Nguyen has received recognition from industry heavyweights for her work. She is a fellow of the American Heart Association and has received the organization’s Scientist Development Award.

All three researchers share a passion for addressing urgent health challenges and a strong desire to bring the results into the mainstream. They believe it’s their obligation to change lives, enhance lives, and save lives now and for generations to come.

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