‘For me, better ways are important because it [helps] patients lead a better life’

Dr. Peppas speaking at the Richard Liu Auditorium.

Photo Courtesy of Vanessa Velazquez Photography

Dr. Peppas speaking at the Richard Liu Auditorium.

Gauri Raje, News Editor

UTSA’s Academy of Distinguished Researchers hosted Dr. Nicholas A. Peppas, a professor of cellular and biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday, March 2. 

“As a part of [the] Academy, we have the Distinguished Speaker Series [where] we invite top-notch researchers across the nation to come here and give us a talk,” Dr. Hemid Beladi, chair of the Academy, said.

Peppas, who serves as the director of the Institute for Biomaterials, Drug Delivery and Regenerative Medicine, discussed the future of biomaterials in improving the quality of life for patients.

“It is a great honor for me to be here and discuss with you some of my thoughts about a very important subject,” Peppas said. “[Biomedical engineering] is a field that will give you the opportunity to go back home and help patients, help citizens, be proud that you [came up] with a better solution.”

Peppas started by talking about the history of the biomedical field, including the first heart transplant performed by Christiaan Barnard in 1967; however, Peppas pointed out that despite advances in the field, there was a lack of understanding of the biomedical properties of materials used. 

Today, the field of biomedical sciences looks very different, with the emergence of “advanced biomaterials, modified biological structures, intracellular delivery [systems]” and bionanotechnology. 

Peppas then shifted focus to discuss autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and macular degeneration. 

In an autoimmune disease, the body’s immune system attacks its own cells. For all of these diseases, treatment is administered through an injection which can be painful for the patient, sometimes making the patient reluctant to receive treatment.

In the case of multiple sclerosis, treatment involves an intramuscular injection once a week. While skipping an injection for a week does not lead to immediate effects, the patient’s health can deteriorate over a period of months. 

Drawing on his own experience of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Peppas recounted taking intramuscular injections as a treatment for the disease. While the diagnosis was incorrect, the experience impacted his research approach. 

“I submit to all of you that what we learn in undergraduate and graduate [school] is one possible solution,” Peppas said. “It doesn’t mean we have to stop there and say, ‘Because we have a way to [treat a disease], there is no better way.’”

“For me, better ways are important because it [helps] patients lead a better life,” Peppas added.

Peppas highlighted the importance of treatments available for autoimmune diseases while also discussing the importance of how these drugs can be administered. 

“Don’t tell me [the best way to administer these drugs] is by shots [or] an IV in a hospital once a month,” Peppas said. “We are active citizens [and] we want to continue being active. We are sorry that we have the disease, but you can not tell us that your best solution is [an IV or similar methods].”

In order to come up with alternative ways to deliver these drugs, which include antibodies, knowledge of the isoelectric point of the molecules is important. The isoelectric point is the pH at which a molecule does not carry a net charge and helps determine the pH at which these different molecules tend to dissolve. Molecular weight also plays a role when it comes to the delivery of drugs to cells. 

All of these factors add a lot of nuance to drug delivery systems. An example of this would be the oral administration of drugs that are otherwise delivered via injection. In this case, the acidic pH of the stomach and absorption of the drug in the GI tract are some of the issues that need to be addressed. On a molecular level, drugs need to be absorbed and enter the bloodstream to work. 

In 2021, Peppas, along with colleagues and students, published a paper titled “Engineering precision nanoparticles for drug delivery” on this topic of precision medicine. The paper has been cited 1871 times.

“I want to tell you how important it is to publish the right paper in the right journal at the right time,” Peppas said. “People read it. It’s changing lives. It teaches them how to come up with better ways to treat.”

Peppas first presented research relating to the development of pH-sensitive self-assembled polymers, prepared using RAFT polymerization, that can be used to administer treatment for rheumatoid arthritis orally. His team also started working on the oral delivery of molecules like interferon beta, which is used to treat multiple sclerosis using transcellular and paracellular transport. Since the latter can increase the risk of infections like cholera, the team has focused on the transcellular mechanism. 

He also presented another application involving the delivery of proteins in the body to treat other diseases using a hydrogel to deliver molecules like insulin, human growth hormone and calcitonin. With respect to Crohn’s disease, Peppas presented research on an approach to treating it using siRNA molecules, which need to be delivered directly to cells. Finally, Peppas presented information and research on macular degeneration treatment. 

Peppas’ team is also working on alternative ways to establish early diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Furthermore, through their research, Peppas’ team has created new biomaterials that are “responsive to the environment,” including factors like pH, light and temperature. 

“These are the applications that lead to intelligence,” Peppas said. “We use [this word] because we truly believe that we can recognize what happens to the surrounding medium and we can lead to better solutions.”

Peppas also highlighted the health disparities worldwide as it relates to autoimmune diseases, healthcare checkups and screening. According to Peppas, autoimmune diseases often tend to appear in individuals that do not have “regular medical background treatment.” 

Concerning multiple sclerosis, Peppas explained that the disease tends to appear “dominantly” in women, adding that autoimmune diseases are the eighth leading cause of death in women ages 15 to 64. 

Furthermore, Peppas pointed out the lack of early detection and treatment of severe diseases. This can occur due to a lack of understanding regarding the early signs of disease, making health disparities affecting women and minority populations even more apparent.

“[As engineers], we have to give answers,” Peppas said. “We have to come up with better biosensors that will recognize certain biomolecules [allowing for better detection of diseases or its tendency in individuals].”

“I seriously believe that quality of life with intelligent materials is a must,” Peppas concluded. “And that quality of life does not mean simply doing something that has been done for years, but looking for new techniques.” 

Peppas ended by encouraging members of the audience to pursue their unique ideas. 

“If you have ideas, pursue them,” Peppas said. “Go to supervisors, to mentors, to family. Start companies. You can do it. Solve some important problems.”

Apart from its Speaker Series, the Academy of Distinguished Scholars serves as a way to recognize researchers at UTSA and their work. 

“[Since becoming an R1 institution], our efforts have really increased [when it comes to maintaining the] research-intensive status,” Beladi said. “And the Academy really is a vehicle that would do that.”

For more information about the Speaker Series or the Academy, visit https://research.utsa.edu/about/distinguished-researchers.html