Research Sparks 2018: Dr Laurence Fitzhenry

Research
Dr Laurence Fitzhenry speaking at Research Sparks 2018

Dr Laurence Fitzhenry speaking at Research Sparks 2018

A lecturer in Chemistry, Dr Laurence Fitzhenry’s research investigates the development of more efficient strategies to treat ocular diseases

Biography

Since 2014, Laurence has been a Lecturer in Chemistry at the Department of Science, WIT and a Principal Investigator at the PMBRC, working in the field of ocular drug delivery. He holds a BSc in Applied Chemistry with Quality Management and a PhD in polymer and analytical chemistry. After commencing his postdoctoral research (PMBRC, 2011-2013), on the development of contact lenses for the controlled release of drugs, he then became an Enterprise Ireland-funded Technology Leader within the PMBRC (2013-2014). As well as continuing his research, this role involved working on various industrially-led projects with a number of partners.

Synopsis

Developing more efficient strategies to treat ocular diseases can take a variety of approaches. The work carried out by our research group focusses on using nanoscience, and a nanomaterials approach, to improve the delivery of drugs to the eye. “To this end, we have investigated a number of biodegradable and biocompatible nanomaterials that are capable of the controlled release of drugs into the eye”, he said. Ranging in size from 20-200 nanometres, these nanomaterials have been incorporated in contact lenses and eye drops and have been shown to effectively control the release of drugs commonly used to treat ocular conditions.

Research story

The physiological barriers of the eye that work so well to prevent such a sensitive organ from the daily threats of infection and injury, can often prevent effective delivery of drugs to treat ocular diseases. For example, eye drops are known to deliver only 1-5% of the drug dosage, causing an increase of the systemic concentration of the drug and can lead to serious side effects. As such, the use of so-called “smart” drug delivery systems, based on a nanoscience approach, can greatly increase the delivery of drugs to the eye, targeting the site of action and reducing the potential off-target effects of these drugs.

Commenting on the research domain he said, “ocular conditions can affect the front (anterior) segment or the back (posterior) segment of the eye and include conditions such as dry eye syndrome and age-related macular degeneration. The former is a significant global problem, affecting 350 million people worldwide; it leads to dry eyes, chronic inflammation and poor quality of life.” Sufferers may have to add drops to the eye multiple times throughout the day, and in some extreme cases, use drops throughout the night. Our research group is using nanomaterials to enhance traditional eye drops for the treatment of dry eye. Such nanomaterial-enhanced drops can minimise the frequency of dosage as well as increasing the overall efficacy by ensuring that drugs reach the intended site of action and that it is not washed away by the tear film. This on-going work is part of an EI-funded commercialisation project that has resulted in the filing of two patent applications based on eye drop formulations that have the potential to treat various aspects of dry eye, ensuring maximum relief to sufferers of both mild and sever forms of the condition.

Age-related macular degeneration is one of the most common causes of blindness in the developed world, for patients over sixty years of age. This disease affects the posterior segment of the eye and, together with other posterior segment diseases, such as diabetic retinopathy, account for 50% of ocular conditions. However, only 5% of commercial ocular therapeutics target such diseases. Common treatments for these conditions include injections into the vitreous of the eye and can come with side effects such as retinal detachment and increased ocular pressure. The development of a drop or delivery device that could be applied to the front of the eye but deliver drug across the eye’s anatomical barriers is the subject of considerable focus. His research group is working on the augmentation of delivery platforms, such as contact lenses, to achieve targeted and controlled release of drugs to the back of the eye. At present, there is one PhD student working exclusively on posterior segment diseases with another commencing research in the first semester of 2018. Following on from funding received from the Irish Research Council to develop a US-Ireland network (OcuNet), the team now works with an intersectoral and multidisciplinary consortium composed of academic, industrial and clinical researchers from around the world to apply for funding, train postgraduate researchers and combat the growing societal burden of these diseases.

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Related Courses

Bachelor of Science (Honours) in  Science (Common Entry)

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