4th August 2011
National award for graduate’s gene therapy research
A SUNDERLAND pharmacy graduate has landed a national award for her research investigating formulations to stabilise DNA - which has the potential to treat of all kinds of genetic diseases from cancer to heart disease.
Annika Kwiek, who has just graduated from a four-year pharmacy degree at the University of Sunderland, was entered for the British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association (BPSA) Research Poster Awards after her lecturers recognised the importance of her work in the area of gene therapy.
Human genetic diseases are caused by mutation or deletion of genes, leading to impairment of the cell cycle. The aim of gene therapy is to treat the cause rather than the symptoms of the disease through the insertion of DNA into an individual’s cell nucleus – where harmful mutated genes are replaced with healthy ones.
However, one of the major challenges of this technique is to deliver stable and effective genetic material as DNA is so fragile, it can easily be destroyed by human enzymes and the body’s own immune system. In order to protect and stabilise the DNA, Annika has been analysing the effectiveness of a number of compounds, as well as lyophilisation (freeze-drying to make the material more convenient for transporting to targeted cells).
And she’s had promising results with cyclodextrins, compounds made up of sugar molecules, and co-povidone polymer which offered the most protection to DNA in preserving its biological function.
The 24-year-old, from Poland, said: “Many different methods to treat diseases are being tested in the field of gene therapy. One of them is viral vectors, where a virus is extremely effective at infecting cells, however, this method can be dangerous and time consuming as the body’s organs see this as something that needs to be destroyed.
“I have been researching non-viral vectors and the prepared formulations stabilise and protect the DNA from the outside environment.”
Annika’s research has been made possible thanks to state-of-the-art equipment in the university’s new £8.5m Sciences Complex, which was officially opened in February this year.
On winning her award, she said: “I put a tremendous amount of effort into this project and had such passion for the research, so I’m delighted that the work has been recognised in this way.
“This national recognition is one of the ways of getting into the pharmacy world, as I want to undertake a PhD in drug delivery systems.”
Dr Amal Elkordy, a senior lecturer in pharmaceutics whose research area is gene delivery has been working alongside Annika, she said: “The research on delivery of stable and effective genes in the body is hugely important, as successful DNA delivery can help in the treatment of genetic diseases and acquired diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s.
“I am delighted that Annika’s research has been recognised by the BPSA, it’s thoroughly deserved, and she has been supported by the whole department.
“She has also benefitted from the new spectroscopy equipment we now have on site, as a result of the opening of the new science complex.”
The BPSA Poster Competition is run in association with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.
A spokesperson for the BSPA said: “Judging of the competition is based on visual and oral presentation of the poster. The standard of posters presented this year was very high and Annika competed against a number of excellent entries.
“Annika's poster was particularly interesting and professional; she demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of her chosen subject answering questions in a confident and professional manner.
“The BPSA would like to congratulate Annika and we hope that her achievement will be recognised by potential employers.”
Annika was already studying food science and nutrition in the region when she had a change of heart about the career path she wished to follow and applied to Sunderland to study pharmacy.
She said: “I think pharmacy offers you a variety of different options and is an area I am very interested in. I hope to continue my work through a PhD, which I believe could have a significant impact in the treatment of any genetic condition from heart disease to cystic fibrosis.”