Tiny soft medicine factories

Researchers at Aarhus University have developed a new method to build tiny degradable ‘medicine factories’ inside the body.

2014.01.24 | Peter F. Gammelby

Alexander Zelikin has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant valued at EUR 2 million.

A factory built of gel does not sound very durable. But the new type of micro-factories invented by researchers at Aarhus University do not have to last.

They will actually be placed inside a patient’s body – exactly where the medicine is required – and they will gradually dissolve and disappear in the patient’s urine once their mission is accomplished.

The prospects are so enormous that Associate Professor of Chemistry Alexander Zelikin, Aarhus University, has just been granted EUR 2 million to boost research and development in this field. The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded him an ERC Consolidator Grant.

Very advanced gel

The tiny factories consist of hydrogel, which is fundamentally a mixture of water and polymers with characteristics similar to gelatine. In this case, we are dealing with some advanced variants of hydrogels. They must simultaneously be able to function as material for the small factories and contain the enzymes needed to produce medicine while the raw material is arriving at the factories.

There is basically nothing new in allowing enzymes to be in charge of the medical production – plenty of drugs are made of inactive substances that are not converted into active drugs until the liver or enzymes elsewhere in the body begin to break them down. They are called prodrugs.

An example of an ordinary prodrug is acetylsalicylic acid, which is the main ingredient in the common types of pain-relieving drugs. They do not work until the liver has converted them into salicylic acid.

“The problem with this type of prodrug, however, is that they are typically sent into the blood in the entire body after the conversion, so that only a fraction reaches the place that hurts. This problem can be solved in the process by creating prodrugs, which can only be transformed by specific enzymes – and then placing these enzymes in the particular part of the body that needs the drugs,” explains Alexander Zelikin.

He will spend the EUR 2 million on developing two types of biodegradable factories:

Stents and particles

One of them is a new kind of stent, which is a term for the small metal meshes that are operated into patients suffering from blockage of a coronary artery to keep it open after angioplasty.

Alexander Zelikin’s stents will be made of hydrogel instead of metal, because their primary purpose is not to keep a vein open, but to deliver medicine: the doctor injects a prodrug into the patient’s vein, after which the enzymes in the stent convert it to a medicine against arteriosclerosis, for example.

“The same enzymes will also be able to transform other sorts of prodrugs, so if one medicine doesn’t work, you can switch to another without having to call the patient in for a new treatment,” says Alexander Zelikin.

“Metal stents coated with medicine are already in use – they just don’t have the flexibility provided by treatment with the enzymatic medicine factories,” he adds.

The second sort will consist of small particles, which can initially be used for the treatment of diseases such as cancer. The particles must be able to submit both medicine and contrast agents, for example, so that they can be used simultaneously for treatment and diagnosis.

More specifically, the ERC grant will result in the employment of four PhD students and a postdoctoral fellow.

The technology is pending patent and is being commercialised through the Technology Transfer Office at Aarhus University.


Alexander Zelikin (36) completed his PhD at the Moscow State University in 2003. He subsequently worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell University and the University of Melbourne, prior to coming to Aarhus University in 2009.

For more information, please contact

Alexander Zelikin
Department of Chemistry
Aarhus University
zelikin@chem.au.dk
+45 2329 7986

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Tags: Nano,medicin,prodrug,ERC Consolidator Grant,