Nanoparticles dancing with cells in the brain. That was my scientific takeaway from the Fifth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, held in April 2014.
As we gear up this week to host the Sixth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, I’m reminded of that image, planted in my memory by Dr. Elena Batrakova, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It was during a reception last April that Batrakova was telling me and our executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd, about the nature of her research.
“So tell me, Dr. Batrakova, what’s the end goal of your research,” Loyd said.
Batrakova answered matter-of-factly in her rich Russian accent, “We hope to find better ways to treat and even reverse the effects of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”
So her research could change the world.
My mind was blown. Hers was at ease as she went on to describe the challenges in treating illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, those that affect the brain.
According to an article on Batrakova’s work by David Etchison, “Getting drugs into the brain is extremely difficult in general because it is protected and isolated from the rest of the body by the blood-brain barrier, which is extremely selective about what is allowed to pass through.”
The approach of Batrakova’s research, as Etchison describes it, is to load nanoparticles into macrophages—a type of white blood cell—which are able to bypass the blood-brain barrier. Another delivery method is to load the nanoparticles into exosomes—tiny bubbles of protein and fat produced naturally by cells, as Etchison describes them—that have been isolated from macrophages and deliver those through the blood-brain barrier. Batrakova’s description of the bypass was delightful.
“It’s like the macrophages and the cells of the blood-brain barrier are dancing,” she said, beaming.
Her use of visuals made it easy for us laymen to understand the nature of her work. In essence, the cells she injects with medicine to treat Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s function as sort of a Trojan horse. This has revolutionary implications for the medical field. And the gravity of the work is not lost on Batrakova.
“Every time we (she and her team) publish our next research paper, I receive hundreds of emails and calls from patients, from their relatives,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s so encouraging because they just ask ‘when, how?’
“I feel how important this research is.”
Batrakova presented on her research at the last Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference. Since then, she has collaborated with several scientists she met during her brief visit to Petit Jean Mountain. We take a lot of pride in identifying and convening leaders in science, policy, business and other fields, and we love hearing that the connections they make here have lasting effects in their work.
I’ll be the first to admit that most of the science discussed at our conference is well beyond my capacity for understanding. But that image of cells doing a two-step with nanoparticles brings it home for me. What research will I learn about this week that could someday change the world? I can’t wait to find out.