Professor develops better excipients to make pharmaceutical drugs safer to take and more effective

The professor of soft matter chemistry collaborates with researchers who specialise in pharmacy, biology and physics, as well as medical doctors.

What are your research topics?

My research field, soft matter chemistry, lies at the interface of chemistry, materials science and medicine.

My colleagues and I are engaged in developing and investigating new biomaterials for drug delivery, antimicrobial and antiviral materials, tissue engineering and biofabrication.

Biomaterials are any materials that come into contact with living organisms and fulfill a specific purpose; for instance, contact lenses, implants such as artificial hip joints or the materials in a medicine that help the drug to work. For example, we develop polymers to make drugs safer to take and more effective.

In biofabrication, we develop new materials that allow improved 3D printing of living cells. Eventually, this should lead to better test systems for diseases, so that animal tests can be reduced or avoided, or even to replacement organs for patients.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

A large proportion of promising or actual drugs are very poorly soluble in water. This is a huge problem, because our body consists mainly of water and if the drug does not dissolve, it cannot do its job.

Therefore, other substances are used to help the drug to work. These substances are called excipients. Better excipients and better drug formulations have direct and very important effects onf patients. Instead of a 10-hour long infusion in a hospital with considerable side effects, a drug may be taken as a simple pill at home or as a small subcutaneous injection similar to what diabetes patients do every day.

For example, paclitaxel, the most important chemotherapeutic agent worldwide, is so poorly soluble that without excipients, patients would have to receive 400 litres of solution, which is of course impossible.

Currently, patients receive several literes of a formulations, but unfortunately the excipients lead to very bad side effects. We have developed a new formulation of paclitaxel, which would reduce the amount that has to be injected to less than 10 milliliteres and our research suggests that it could be much safer for patients.

Antimicrobial and antiviral materials are not only of great interest because of the current pandemic. As opposed to antimicrobial and antiviral drugs, antimicrobial and antiviral materials are potentially much cheaper and less susceptible to mutations of the bacteria or viruses.

Finally, in biofabrication, we print living cells using 3D printing. This will hopefully be used in the future to make better, patient-specific disease models for cancer patients. Doctors could then offer safer and more effective personalised treatment options to patients.

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

Soft matter chemistry is an incredibly versatile research field. I can and must learn new things every day. I have the privilege of sharing my knowledge with motivated young researchers from all over the world.

Our research ranges from very basic research, where we want to unravel the most fundamental aspects of biomaterials and how they interact with complex biological systems and organisms, all the way to very applied problems, where we try to solve one particular problem with our materials.

Working together with many colleagues from chemistry, pharmacy, biology and physics, and even with medical doctors, is challenging in many ways, but also very inspiring.

Having founded two start-up companies, I know how difficult it is to eventually arrive at a real product that can help make patients' lives better. However, that does not stop me from trying.

Robert Luxenhofer is the professor of soft matter chemistry at the Faculty of Science.

Watch Robert Luxenhofer's inaugural lecture as a new professor on the 8th of September on YouTube.

Read about the other newly appointed professors here.