New project will develop light-activated molecules to fight cancer and infection

Posted on: 19 September 2017

Scientists from Trinity College Dublin and six other countries are leading a €2.5 million Horizon 2020-funded project to optimise the design of molecules that become active when exposed to light to fight cancers and infections, and which should also boost food security by safeguarding against potentially harmful microbes.

Among the practical applications that should benefit from this research and come out of the project are new first-aid bandages, skin/anti-tumour treatments, self-sterilising prosthetic devices for patients, self-sterilising surfaces for the food industry and biologically-inspired drug carriers that will deliver drugs to where they are needed in the body.

Known as tetrapyrrolic photosensitisers (PS) – and related to the pigments that make blood appear red and plants green – these molecules become active when exposed to light, which causes them to form reactive oxygen species (ROS).

These ROS are toxic to surrounding cells, and cause them to die. PS have a very low (safe) toxicity until they are exposed to light and are already used in photodynamic therapy (PDT) for cancer or skin disease treatments, or as agents in photo-antimicrobial chemo-therapy (PACT).

A human oesophageal cell lights up in red after having taken up a photosensitizer. Image credit: Professor Mathias Senge.

Professor of Organic Chemistry at Trinity, Mathias Senge, is leading the project at Trinity. He said: “Although the basic idea has been known for some time a number of scientific barriers must be overcome to increase the efficacy of these amazing molecules and bring about a change in clinical practice."

"For example, we must improve the chemical pathways that lead to the molecules becoming activated in the body, boost and more tightly control ROS production, enhance our ability to target specific cells, and learn how to eradicate the subsequent development of biofilms, which can compromise patient health.”

“This new project, called EJD Polythea, therefore aims to simultaneously develop a unique, integrated and multidisciplinary approach to photodynamic therapy practice through the implementation of 10 PhD research projects that will afford students the chance to study at two different institutions and gain practical work experience with industry partners throughout Europe.”

EJD Polythea will implement its innovative shared postgraduate degree programme to enable students to gain multidisciplinary skills and to experience work in both the academic and non-academic sectors to enhance their later employability and help them translate their scientific knowledge into real-world solutions that make a tangible difference for a host of patients and professionals.

Along with Trinity, academic institutions in six different European countries will form part of the consortium. The other institutions are: Université de Limoges, France; Politechnika Wroclawska, Poland; Universiteit van Amsterdam, Netherlands; Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal; Universite de Neuchatel; Switzerland; Texnologikes Lyseis Bioekpompis OE, Greece.

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