$2M NSF grant gives personalized medicines project shot in the arm

A cross-disciplinary U-M research team, led by MSE Professor Max Shtein, seeks to make telemedicine better and dramatically less expensive than current in-person medicine.
$2M NSF grant gives personalized medicines project shot in the arm

Clockwise top left: MSE Professor Max Shtein, MSE Associate Professor Geeta Mehta, MSE Associate Professor Anish Tuteja, Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Nair Rodriguez-Hornedo, and ChE Professor Ron Larson

A U-M research team, led by MSE Professor Max Shtein, recently received a $2 million grant from NSF, propelling the project closer to its goal of enabling the personalization of medicine for prices comparable or ultimately more cost-effective than the current practice.

“Obviously, we were very excited to hear the news and can’t wait to get on with the project,” Shtein says. “The support from NSF acts as a powerful catalyst for the cross-disciplinary team to work more quickly, and for us to more effectively engage the broader expertise at U-M.”  

Other project members include MSE Associate Professors Geeta Mehta and Anish Tuteja, ChE Professor Ron Larson, and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Nair Rodriguez-Hornedo.

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According to Shtein, this project paves the way toward distributed manufacturing of medicines, focusing initially on cancer drugs. Right now, many cancer medications have to be administered in special infusion clinics under professional supervision.

Further, for best results, the cancer drugs have to be highly personalized to each patient. This takes much time from the patients, costs a lot of money, and, in situations like COVID, can be deadly, as the clinics can’t easily see as many patients. There are also potential disruptions to the medicines' supply chain, and concerns with off-shore manufacturing.

“Instead, imagine making cancer medicines being administered in the same way as headache medicine is taken now,” Shtein says. “You don’t have to go to the hospital to take an ibuprofen. That’s not currently possible with many cancer medicines, and our project aims to enhance them to a point where they may be more easily absorbed and formulated to be taken at home. It may sound crazy to some pharmacologists now, but perhaps in the future people will wonder why things used to be so challenging for patients. We think this research we are embarking on will be an essential step toward making telemedicine better and dramatically less expensive than the current in-person medicine, which is our ultimate vision.”

While the focus is on distributed manufacturing of medicine, it turns out that many pharmaceutical compounds exhibit polymorphism, and the crystalline structure and morphology impact how well the medicine interacts with the body. 

“Despite the fact that this has been a well-known issue in the field, with much deep work done over the years, new medicinal compounds are being developed constantly,” Shtein explains. “Meanwhile, there still is relatively poor predictability regarding the process-structure and structure-property relationships. In this project we will be exploring novel methods of controlling crystallization and studying how the pharmaceutical materials’ resulting structure impacts its biological & pharmacological properties. And doing this in a distributed materials manufacturing scenario. Our material processing, surface treatment, computational prediction, and biological testing techniques potentially give us greater versatility and speed for achieving than current practices, including in how pharmaceutical ingredients are combined into (personalized) dosages, which we want to leverage to improve compatibility of the active and inactive ingredients in medicines.”

The NSF grant, then, will help the team continue the breakthrough work they started several years ago and ensure that the necessary collaborations among the current team members move forward.

As Shtein comments: “It will help us build a platform and engage additional expertise required to make this moonshot a reality.”