Hélder Santos is in search of more precise drug treatments for cancer, diabetes and heart disease

The development of nanomedicines will change the paradigm on how we treat known diseases, says the professor of pharmaceutical nanotechnology.

What are your research topics?

I am working in the fields of nanomedicine and biomedical engineering. These fields are closely related and have progressed tremendously in the past years. Nanomedicine is the application of tiny materials at the nanometer scale for better control of drug delivery after administration and targeting applications to, for example, cancer tumours.

For several years, my research group has focused on the design and application of different nanomedicines with different properties to tackle some of the current problems in delivering drugs across different biological barriers. We aim to solve problems encountered, for example, in the treatment of diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Currently, we focus on the development of several pharmaceutical nanoformulations, such as nanovaccines for cancer immunotherapy, nanomedicines for myocardium infarction treatment, oral drug nanoformulations for diabetes, and microneedles for skin drug delivery and regenerative medicine.

The more we investigate and understand the bio-nano interactions and their behaviour both in vitro and in vivo – in the laboratory – the more exciting it becomes and the closer we are to translating such nanomedicines into use in a clinical setting.

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

As we enter the new era of nanomedicine and deepen our knowledge and understanding of how new nanomedicines perform at the patient level, we will certainly witness another paradigm shift in the current ways to treat known diseases. This includes the treatment of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, as well as the way we can translate such nanomedicines to treat new diseases like COVID-19.

If drugs can be precisely targeted to the exact right place in the body, we can direct our treatments in a more efficient way and use significantly smaller doses – and consequently have fewer side effects. To allow for such precise delivery, we need tiny drug nanocarriers like the ones we are developing in our lab.

Currently, more and more nano-drug delivery systems are entering clinical trials and several others have already been approved for clinical use. Therefore, they are already impacting our society and will strongly impact the next generation of medicines. At the moment, several vaccines being developed for COVID-19 are based on nanoparticles or nanomedicine structures.

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

The fact that we can use such tiny particles, nanoparticles, carrying drug molecules to help solve health-related issues is a very strong motivation for me. What inspires me the most is that nanomedicines can be made to respond to several patient needs.

This is driving us to develop novel nanomedical approaches, such as the prominent biohybrid nanomedicines made of different nanoparticles combined with cell-based components for vaccination, to enhance the drugs’ targetability inside the relevant tissues or cells without damaging the healthy ones. Biohybrid nanomedicines are versatile tools for future clinical translation into different biomedical applications.

Hélder Santos is a professor of pharmaceutical nanotechnology at the Faculty of Pharmacy.

Watch Hélder Santos’s inaugural lecture as a new professor on 4 December 2020 on YouTube.

Read about the other newly appointed professors here.