Biochemical engineer Eleanor Stride has won the £300,000 2015 IET A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize. E&T spoke to her about her work.
Stride was chosen as the overall winner from an array of high-calibre candidates from around the world because of her contributions to biomedical engineering and her research into the treatment of major diseases such as cancer and strokes. Her work, particularly that focused on targeted drug delivery using ultrasound, aims to develop new encapsulation techniques to provide the necessary degree of control over particle characteristics, in order to minimise the exposure of healthy tissue.
Stride obtained her BEng and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from University College London (UCL), where she was subsequently appointed to a lectureship and a Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Research Fellowship.
E&T: Congratulations on winning this award.
Stride: Thank you. I was shocked, genuinely shocked, but delighted.
E&T: You have made incredible progress within the field of targeted drug-delivery. What should those less familiar with it know?
Stride: There’s been a huge amount of activity in developing extremely effective drugs over the last 15 years in the pharmaceutical industry for cancer or stroke treatments, but often the problem is actually getting them to work in the human body. A lot of it is getting the drug to the right place. Now that may just be because the body processes the drug and deactivates it before it gets to a target site or, more seriously, it may be because the drug is extremely toxic, usually developed to kill cells, so if you give it so that it passes through the whole of the body it causes some very serious side-effects. One is getting the drug in to one place and the other is stopping it being anywhere else.
What we’ve been looking at in Oxford [the Oxford Institute of Biomedical Engineering] is trying to develop a complementary technique which is using the more mechanical approach, whereby we encapsulate the drug so it’s deactivated; we can track where the drug is flowing by tracking the carrier and then we can release the drug by destroying that carrier once it’s got to a target site. One of the particular methods that I’m interested in is doing that using ultrasound. It’s great because it’s already widely used as an imaging technique and it’s also got the advantage that it can pass through the body without doing any harm and you can use it pretty much anywhere in the body except the head.
E&T: In terms of research and the blend of biomedical science and engineering, what has been problematic or particularly challenging for you?
Stride: The largest challenge is the sheer complexity of the human body as an environment in which to design something. It’s enormously difficult and not very well understood. Coming at it as a mechanical engineer you start with an extraordinarily simplistic view, treating it like a plumbing system, and you very quickly realise that’s not the case. You realise there will be chemical effects, physical effects, even electrical effects that you have to deal with. We are still trying to optimise our systems so they will operate within the body effectively.
E&T: Based on your interactions with people from within the industry, but also outside it, is biomedical engineering becoming more widely embraced?
Stride: There’s been a realisation in the past that the vast quantities of money that have been spent on drug development haven’t caused a revolutionary cancer or stroke treatment. Perhaps the major barrier is that although these drugs are very effective, they don’t get to the right place. There’s been a lot of emphasis from companies and big funding agencies in the US, UK and China to try and develop solutions to this problem. The direction in the next ten years is mechanisms for drug delivery as opposed to the drugs themselves.
E&T: Trials with targeted drugs are already taking place, but how long do you think it will be until they become commercially available? What about your trial?
Stride: It’s very difficult to give you a number. It’s very much a continuous process. My colleagues in Oxford are starting a clinical trial where they are combining ultrasound with an existing cancer drug. We’re very hopeful that if that works the next stage will be to take some of the stuff that we are developing in our laboratory and take that into humans. It’s going to be step-by-step process, we’re checking it each day, and it’s a piece by piece puzzle to make sure it’s both safe and effective. It’s starting now and within the next five to ten years it will be a very interesting transformation.
E&T: Do you consider the prize a validation of your work? Will it help you in any way?
Stride: It’s brilliant because we were able to take forward a strand of research, something we think is very important but quite tricky to get a company to fund. It’s wonderful. We’ve already started building the device actually in the laboratory and our aim with this is to develop a better carrier for these drugs. At the moment we’re stuck between using conventional chemistry techniques, which give you very stable drug vehicles and very high yield, but they’re very poorly controlled and that’s not good. It’s all about using a very precise technique, one which is extraordinarily expensive, but also very slow, so we’re hoping to try and get the best of both worlds.