Eugenia Kharlampieva, Ph.D.Veronika Kozlovskara, Ph.D.

Eugenia Kharlampieva, Ph.D., and Veronika Kozlovskaya, Ph.D., in the Department of Chemistry are harnessing the potential of microcapsules for use in human and environmental health.

The pair is leading the charge to create controlled, “intelligent” microcapsules that can transform to evade obstacles, like our body’s vigilant immune system, and transport drugs to precise targets.

Kharlampieva’s lab has pioneered a layer-by-layer technology that produces hollow microcapsules made of novel polymer hydrogels. The protective coating helps prevent the immune system from planting protein warning signs on the capsules, so they avoid being tagged as foreign and destroyed. While most synthetic particles are flushed out of the bloodstream within minutes, the researchers have designed microcapsules that survive for hours. They also have improved their aim, designing capsules that break down at a specific acidity level, meaning they hold onto their payload until they reach the highly acidic environment inside cancer cells, for example.

Another type of capsule can be tracked through the body using ultrasound imaging. Once the tiny bubbles congregate in a tumor, a higher dose of ultrasound can trigger the microcapsules to rupture and release cancer-fighting drugs. Kharlampieva says the technique could one day benefit patients with breast, melanoma, colon, prostate, or lung cancer by providing an effective alternative to surgery that spares healthy tissue. Other microcapsule variants can carry antioxidant compounds, which scavenge molecules that damage cells in diseases including diabetes, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney disease, and cancer. One day, the hydrogel coating might help ward off immune-system attacks against insulin-producing cells transplanted into patients to treat type 1 diabetes.

Another UAB-created polymer vehicle could help disperse future oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which leaked 210 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Their solution: self-destructing microsponges that absorb oil and harness the sun’s ultraviolet rays to degrade it into carbon dioxide and water. When the job is done, the particles themselves degrade as well, unlike other technologies that absorb oil which have to be disposed of afterward and can be highly toxic.

As part of their annual expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula, Biology Professors Chuck Amsler, Ph.D., and James McClintock, Ph.D., have spent the past two decades investigating the defensive mechanisms of marine algae, sponges, and other invertebrate species that make their home in Antarctic waters. The subject is of great scientific value in its own right, but these defensive chemicals also hold promise for humans, too. Over the years, the team has solved the chemical structures of some 24 compounds and tested about 1,000 extracts of organics. That work has identified two promising natural compounds that are being studied as potential drugs: a protein found in an Antarctic red algae that is active against the H1N1 flu virus, and a smaller compound the research team named palmerolide in honor of Palmer Station that has potent activity against melanoma skin cancer.

In 2016, the researchers reported a third such discovery, a compound isolated from Dendrilla membranosa that is remarkably effective against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.