Ada Lovelace Day 2020: Medicine’s Biggest Questions

What are the most important medical questions facing humanity today, and how close are we to answering them?

Watch our panel discussion with Prof Ijeoma Uchegbu, UCL School of Pharmacy, Dr Mariam Jamal-Hanjani, Clinical Research Fellow at UCL Cancer Institute, Dr Freya Harrison, Associate Professor at the University of Warwick, and Dr Jen Edwards, University Academic Fellow in Musculoskeletal Medical Technologies at the University of Leeds to talk about the biggest medical questions and how scientists are attempting to answer them.

Our speakers

Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu

Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience, UCL School of Pharmacy

Prof Ijeoma UchegbuIjeoma Uchegbu is a Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience. She has studied the mechanisms of drug transport across biological barriers and created award winning drug transport nanoparticles. She was the first to show that peptides could be delivered across the blood brain barrier to elicit a pharmacological response, when presented as peptide drug nanofibers and the first to demonstrate, via definitive pharmacology and pharmacokinetics evidence, peptide transport into the brain, using peptide nanoparticles delivered via the nose to brain route. 

These findings led to  the enkephalin pain medicine candidate (NES100), designed to address the opioid crisis. In preclinical studies, NES100 showed no analgesic tolerance, reward seeking behaviour or potential to cause significant constipation.  NES100 has been out licensed to Virpax Pharmaceuticals and is currently being developed by the US National Center for Advancing Translational Studies. If successful, this will be the first neuropeptide medicine approval and it will have been made possible by the innovation originating in Uchegbu’s group.

The technology underpinning NES100 won first prize in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies competition in 2017 and the Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences Science Innovation Award in 2016.  Three other medicine candidates based on this nanotechnology have been out-licensed to pharmaceutical companies in the US. 

Uchegbu’s work has been funded continuously for 21 years by the EPSRC, Wellcome and the pharmaceutical industry.  As UCL’s Pro Vice Provost for Africa and the Middle East, Uchegbu leads on the international research and teaching engagement strategy in this region.  She has served as Chair of the Academy of  Pharmaceutical Sciences and Chaired EPSRC and Science Foundation Ireland grant prioritisation panels.  She is UCL Provost’s Envoy for Race Equality and leads on race equality work at UCL.  Her initiatives (e.g. Dean’s Pledges on Race Equality) were instrumental in achieving UCL’s Bronze Race Charter in 2020.     

Dr Freya Harrison

Associate Professor, University of Warwick

Dr Freya HarrisonDr Freya Harrison researches how bacterial pathogens cause chronic, antibiotic-resistant infections, especially in the long-lived lung infections that affect people with the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis. She is also a founder member of the interdisciplinary AncientBiotics consortium, which seeks to identify, reconstruct and test infection remedies from medieval medical books in the hope of finding new agents to treat antibiotic-resistant infections. 

Harrison’s lab has developed a high-throughput ex vivo lung model for studying chronic lung infections. They use pig lung tissue left over from the meat industry, along with growth medium carefully constructed to mimic the chemistry of lung mucus in specific infection contexts. Their model has high clinical validity for the study of chronic bacterial pathogens in cystic fibrosis, and may be flexibly optimised to mimic other conditions. It also has the advantages of being cheap and ethical. They are keen to share it with colleagues from academia and industry who are working to understand and treat chronic lung infections. They also hope that adoption of this model will help to reduce the use of live animals in infection research by providing a 3Rs-compliant alternative.

Twitter @friendlymicrobe

Dr Mariam Jamal-Hanjani

Clinical Research Fellow, UCL Cancer Institute

Dr Mariam Jamal-HanjaniMariam Jamal-Hanjani obtained her undergraduate degree in Physics from University College London (UCL) in 2000 before studying Medicine at UCL. In 2012 during her clinical training in Medical Oncology, she was awarded a Cancer Research UK Clinical Research Fellowship to complete her PhD in Cancer Genetics, specifically looking at chromosomal instability and intratumour heterogeneity. During this time, she helped establish the UK-wide TRACERx study in lung cancer which aims to examine cancer evolution from early to late stage disease and to determine the impact this has on treatment response and outcome.

In 2016 Mariam was awarded an NIHR Clinical Lectureship during which she established the UK-wide PEACE study for which she is the Chief Investigator. PEACE is a research autopsy study that aims to understand the biological processes involved in the spread of cancer and development of metastatic disease. In 2018, Mariam was appointed as Senior Clinical Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Translational Lung Oncology in the CRUK Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence, UCL Cancer Institute where she concurrently works as a cancer researcher and clinician. She is Chief Scientific Investigator of the first-in-human CHIRON study investigating the clinical activity of autologous clonal neoantigen T cells in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer.

She has been awarded various prizes for her work, including the McElwain Prize from the Association of Cancer Physicians and the Sylvia Lawler Scientific Prize from the Royal Society of Medicine. Her research has been featured in The Telegraph, The Guardian, New Scientist and WIRED magazine.

Dr Jen Edwards

Dr Jen EdwardsUniversity Academic Fellow in Musculoskeletal Medical Technologies, University of Leeds

Jen works within the cross-disciplinary Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (iMBE), in both the School of Biomedical Engineering and the School of Mechanical Engineering. She is a multidisciplinary researcher, having studied Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science as an undergraduate, a PhD in bone tissue engineering and working for 8 years as a postdoctoral research fellow composite biological scaffolds. As a University Academic Fellow, her research covers the use of decellularised scaffolds as regenerative therapies to repair musculoskeletal tissues. These scaffolds could be used ‘off-the-shelf’ for surgical reconstruction, with a lower risk of a negative immune response compared with cellular donor tissues. Treatments for musculoskeletal disorders are important to ensure that people are able to remain healthy and active throughout their lives. In her postdoctoral role, Jen was involved in the development, characterisation and testing of scaffolds for repair of the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee.

Jen’s current work focuses on two decellularised tissues for repair in the foot and ankle; bone-tendon composites and adipose tissue.

Bone-tendon composites would be used to repair damage to small ligaments, such as those in the ankle. Adipose scaffolds or gels could be used to restore the plantar fat pad in the foot, potentially preventing ulcers from forming in diabetic patients. Treatment of these ulcers and their complications costs the NHS almost £1 billion a year and can have huge impacts on patient quality of life. As well as preparing these scaffolds for potential clinical use, the research aims to understand how these scaffolds encourage regeneration once they are implanted. A deeper understanding of the regenerative processes which occur with decellularised scaffolds could uncover new clinical applications for them, or help develop in vitro models of healthy and diseased tissues to reduce our reliance on animal models. As well as understanding the biological behaviour of these scaffolds, the research includes in depth studies of the biomechanical properties, so we can better understand whether these materials can restore normal function in the musculoskeletal system.