The University of Newcastle, Australia

In the world of the inconceivably small but mighty

Dr Susan Hua, recipient of the 2015 HMRI Early Career Researcher of the Year Award, is proving that some of the greatest gifts to human health come in the tiniest of packages.

Like a creative motor mechanic custom-building the ideal courier car, Dr Susan Hua is tinkering with vehicle parts to get parcels from A to B – just on a microscopic scale. She’s designing digitally-precise transport modules for pharmaceutical substances, masterfully applying nanotechnology to the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of disease.

“Most conventional medicines, such as tablets, capsules and injections, are essentially high doses of free drugs that are distributed to all parts of the body,” the pharmaceutics enthusiast elaborates.

“This means they’re not very efficient and increase the risk of adverse effects.”

“There are also some really great novel compounds in the research and development pipeline that are unable to reach the site of disease when delivered on its own.”

“These compounds either suffer from stability issues and are easily degraded following administration, or have physicochemical properties that affect their pharmacokinetics (movement of drug within the body).”

Susan’s research interest is in the cutting-edge field of therapeutic targeting – by making existing and new medicines work better with fewer side effects and toxicity through the use of nanotechnology. Essentially she is interested in designing and manufacturing “vehicles or carriers” that she can load these medicines into, and then modifying the surface of the vehicles to act like a “GPS” to direct the cargo to the site of disease. This allows the development of more effective and safer medications and diagnostic agents.

“This technology is important to allow compounds to bypass biological barriers that would otherwise degrade or hinder their accumulation at the target site,” she asserts.

“This allows maximum targeting efficacy with lower doses and frequency of doses, as well as reduced side effects and toxicity.”

“It’s fast-tracked translation.”

THE JOURNEY TO NANOMEDICINE

Susan completed her Bachelor of Pharmacy degree with Honours at The University of Queensland, attaining a prestigious University Medal, before working as a clinical pharmacist.

In this role she was able to see first-hand how so many of her patients were experiencing devastating side effects from medicines that were actually helping to treat or manage their condition, such as patients with cancer or chronic pain.

“Drugs tend to cause side effects when it harms the healthy cells in the body,” she explains.

“Chemotherapy treatment can take a heavy toll on a patient’s body causing debilitating effects such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, pain, hair loss, decreased blood cell counts, and organ damage.”

“Chronic pain affects the quality of life of so many people, with current treatment limited by sedation, confusion, gastrointestinal upsets, respiratory depression, and dependence.”

Susan believed that there had to be a way we could improve these therapies.

“That’s when I realised that if I wanted to help make a change, I needed to become involved in research.”

This spurred her to pursue a PhD in the field of neuroscience and nanotechnology at The University of Queensland, where she sought to cement a systematic, nuanced understanding of the peripheral mechanisms of inflammatory pain.

“Immune cells contain a lot of useful endogenous analgesics that don’t have the nasty central side effects, such as sedation, dependence and nausea,” she explains.

By understanding the neuroimmune interaction between immune cells and the peripheral nervous system, she was able to use nanotechnology as a tool to mimic this activity exogenously.

“It was about understanding the intricate networks occurring in peripheral inflammatory conditions, and taking advantage of what the body already has to further suppress the pain and inflammation,” she states.

Prior to joining the University of Newcastle, Susan took on a postdoctoral position at the ANZAC Research Institute in Sydney to strengthen her research skills in biochemistry and cellular signalling. This time concentrating on the heart, she looked to gage the therapeutic consequences of oxidative stress on “good cholesterol” or high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) in cardioprotection.

PASSION FOR PHARMACY

Susan joined the University of Newcastle in mid-2010 as a teaching and research academic within the School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy. She teaches intensively into the Masters and Bachelor of Pharmacy Programs in the fields of pharmacotherapeutics and pharmacy practice.

Passionate about the pharmacy profession, Susan enjoys using innovative teaching methods to reinforce key material in a clinically applied approach.

“When students understand why and how we use specific medicines to treat different conditions, they start to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of current treatments from a pharmaceutical, pharmacotherapeutic and pharmacy practice perspective,” she says.

“Hopefully, this inspires them to become clinical leaders in the pharmacy profession or to improve disease outcomes by pursuing a research career.”

Starting from scratch

Susan has become a leader in the field of therapeutic targeting and translational nanopharmaceutics. Since joining the University of Newcastle, she has independently established the first translational nanopharmaceutics laboratory and research program in the Hunter region.

“There was no pharmaceutics laboratory or nanomedicine-based research program when I arrived, therefore I spent a lot of time establishing a new research program and laboratory from the ground up,” Susan affirms.

The general research focus of her laboratory is on therapeutic targeting utilising novel drug delivery platforms in biomedical applications.

“I am particularly interested in using nanotechnology to study novel mechanistic pathways, as well as to develop more efficient therapeutic delivery systems.”

Her research expertise covers the areas of advanced pharmaceutical formulation and characterisation, in vitro cellular studies and preclinical in vivo animal studies. This expertise provides a solid foundation to formulate and evaluate new drug delivery systems and to apply them to pathological disease states, in order to assess potential clinical applicability and identify novel therapeutic targets.

TRANSLATIONAL RESEARCH

Susan has already procured a number of competitive grants and patents, as well as established a productive publication track record. In 2015, she was awarded the HMRI Early Career Researcher of the Year Award, highlighting her significant and valued contribution to the research community.

The majority of her projects are translational and hence are currently under IP commercial in confidence stages. These projects have all applied the use of nanotechnology across a number of research disciplines. She has built strong collaborations with other major research groups locally at the Hunter Medical Research Institute and John Hunter Hospital, and around the world.

Susan is now balancing onsite pharmaceutical investigations with a multitude of fruitful collaborations.

“A number of my key projects are focused on developing novel treatments for pain and inflammation, an area in which I have established important animal models of acute and chronic pain at the University of Newcastle.”

Susan has also teamed up with Laureate Professor Nick Talley and Professor Marjorie Walker to launch the Priority Research Centre for Digestive Health and Neurogastroenterology.

“I’ve been able to work with these two amazing clinician scientists to develop new treatments for gastrointestinal diseases by targeting inflammatory cells in the gut,” she enthuses.

“The results have been exciting and have the potential to revolutionise the way we treat these patients”.

“I’m also working with Professor Roger Smith and Dr Jonathan Paul from the Mothers and Babies Research Centre, to develop a novel targeting system that will deliver contraction-blocking or contraction-inducing drugs to the uterus for preterm labour or postpartum haemorrhage.”

“Having a translational team is important in this field of research.”

This collaboration draws upon Susan’s specialised expertise in manufacturing the targeted liposomes, and couples her skills with Jonathan and Roger’s research expertise in reproductive medicine to apply the novel treatment platform to both human and animal models.

“A new grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council will help us fast-track this novel technology into primate studies,” she attests.

Big prospects for small engineering

The future is wide open for nanomedicine, and Susan is acutely aware of its promises.

“Putting free drugs into the body is not our best way forward,” she advocates.

“The goal of my research is to improve the way we treat patients through designing medicines and diagnostics that are better at specifically targeting the site of disease – in this way we are able to increase their effectiveness and significantly reduce the risk of side effects and toxicity.”

“These targeted therapeutic systems essentially act like a magic bullet.”

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