Western Mail Profiles: Dr Elaine Ferguson

‘Developing new strategies to target drugs to sites of disease’

Elaine Ferguson is a Lecturer in Polymer Therapeutics at Cardiff University’s School of Dentistry. Her research is developing new strategies to specifically target drugs to sites of disease using safe, water-soluble natural materials extracted from plants and animals.

As an identical twin, I have always strived for individuality, so when I qualified as a pharmacist, it wasn’t surprising that I was one of less than 1% of pharmacy graduates to choose a career in university research. While I loved the interaction with patients in community pharmacy and being part of a patient-centred healthcare team in a hospital, these experiences highlighted to me the clinical need for new treatments for diseases such as cancer, infection and heart disease.

Currently, despite vast improvements in clinical management and drug therapies, the prevalence and cost of these diseases are immense: cancer is one of the two biggest causes of premature death in Wales and healthcare associated infections (e.g. MRSA) are estimated to cost the Welsh Government £50 million per year. Treatments exist for these conditions, but often require frequent, painful injections, cause severe side effects and may become less effective after prolonged use.

My research group is developing strategies that enable drugs to reach sites of disease at much a higher concentration than normal using safe, water-soluble natural substances, called polymers, produced by plants and animals. These so-called “polymer therapeutics” are capable of reducing the side effects of conventional drugs by ‘shielding’ them in a polymer ‘coat’, but once they reach the site of disease, they can be triggered to release the drug by the body’s own proteins. As a result, patients require lower doses and less frequent dosing.

Polymer therapeutics, using man-made polymers, have been used clinically to treat cancer since 1990. Since then, they have grown in popularity and complexity, and are now used for other diseases, such as arthritis, hepatitis and Crohn’s disease. While most research groups have concentrated on these diseases, our group was the first to design polymer therapeutics, using natural polymers, for regenerative medicine and tissue repair.

Current projects are developing these advanced therapies for use in diseases of high public health impact, including cystic fibrosis, spinal cord injury and diabetic foot ulcers. Our most promising polymer therapeutic, an antibiotic system for severe bacterial infection, is attracting interest from clinicians and major pharmaceutical companies as a new concept in antibiotic targeting. My hope is that we will see doctors prescribing our new medicines in the next 5-10 years.

Being based in a School of Dentistry may seem like an odd location for my research, but these advanced therapies also have wide applications in dentistry (e.g. facial injury, gum disease). What’s more, I love being able to work closely with clinicians and patients to define their clinical needs, and have access to state-of-the art research facilities, which ultimately, allows me to oversee the progression of my research from the lab bench to the benefit of patients.

Elaine may be contacted at: FergusonEL@cardiff.ac.uk.

This article first appeared in the Western Mail on 20th January 2014, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.