AKRON—The University of Akron's College of Polymer Science and Engineering is finding new applications for polymers—and possibly bolstering its own relevance—by engineering new materials that can integrate with other molecules.
And one of the first areas where this approach is being applied is in the urgent world of opioid addiction. Researchers have developed two new technologies—one that could lead to fewer patients becoming addicted to opioids as a result of a prescription and one that would help protect first responders.
"I think it's a great opportunity, because it is a perfect example of how we can use polymers to meet a new need. It's a niche that two of my faculty have tapped into—Matt Becker and Abraham Joy—but both in very different contexts," said interim college dean Ali Dhinojwala.
Becker at the end of 2018 was awarded a $2 million grant from Ohio's Third Frontier Program, which he said was matched by partners and investors, to develop and commercialize a new polymer-based delivery system for painkillers.
He's developed a polymer film that can hold a painkiller, including opioids and less-powerful drugs sold without a prescription, and deliver it at a controlled rate over a 72-hour period.
"It's a film, loaded with painkillers, that you could implant at the site of surgery," Becker said of his work.
For example, if a doctor was doing rotator cuff surgery, he would place the film inside the incision at the place or places where he knows the pain will emanate after the operation. Then, for 72 hours, the polymer film will release the painkillers not into the patient's general blood stream, but directly into the affected tissue where the pain is.
That's huge, says Arthur Alfaro, CEO of 21MedTech, a North Carolina-based biomedical materials company that has a laboratory and does some of its synthesis in Akron's Bounce Innovation Hub to work with Becker.
After 40 years in the medical device business, three of his own startups and past stints in executive positions at companies such as Boston Scientific and Medtronic—Alfaro said he was still surprised by the potential he saw in Becker's new material.
"When I say this is the biggest opportunity I've ever been involved with or seen, I don't say that lightly. … It's probably the biggest thing I've worked on since dissolvable sutures," Alfaro said.
He said he jumped at the chance to be Becker's manufacturing partner. 21MedTech now hopes to bring the product to market and has identified two other companies that can manufacture the material and are gearing up to do so.
The technology is critical, Alfaro said, because it can control the release of a painkiller over time and at a specific location.
"Virtually any doctor will tell you if you can control pain for 72 hours, you've cleared the hurdle for post-operative pain relief," he said.
At that point, the patient is usually past the point of needing opioids to control the pain, doctors say, so any future pain likely can be managed by less-potent and nonaddictive drugs.
And because the drug is delivered directly to the tissue that's creating the pain, less of a drug is needed to be effective, Alfaro and Becker said.
"When you take an opioid for shoulder surgery, your big toe gets as much of that opioid as your shoulder does," Alfaro said.
So does your brain and all those cerebral receptors that react to opioids and create addiction. With Becker's delivery method, there's never enough of an opioid in the bloodstream to really react with the brain—patients don't get euphoria or addiction, just pain relief. Or, Becker said, often an over-the-counter drug will suffice with the new delivery method increasing its effectiveness.
The next step, Becker said, is to complete testing and do more development work so a broader range of doses can be delivered. He said he thinks the film can be on the market and in use by 2020.
Meanwhile, Joy is developing another blend of polymers and other molecules and has designed a material that reacts with any opioid and changes color. That would be useful to law enforcement and emergency responders who deal with opioids and overdoses—and who in recent years have faced the threat of exposure and overdose. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control warned first responders that they were at risk of overdose, because some of the drugs they encounter are so powerful that just a tiny amount presents a big danger.
Joy was awarded $200,000 from Third Frontier and is continuing his research. Dhinojwala said he's hopeful Joy can win a larger grant in 2019, which would allow him to progress toward development.
Right now, the material is made into mats, which Joy said he tests with the help of local police crime labs. He hopes to ultimately develop, among other things, disposable gloves that emergency workers and law enforcement can wear that would tell them whenever they touched something with an opioid residue on it.
"There are several challenges ahead before it is available for law enforcement to use in their work. This includes the color change chemistry and the fabrication of the polymer mat into a suitable format with the right properties such as form, feel and response time of the test," Joy said via email. "When fully developed, the simplicity of the design can make for an impactful product with widespread use."
While Joy may still have some technical hurdles to cross, he's close — and likely to bring a product to market even faster than Becker, Dhinojwala said, because his material does not require as much regulatory testing as something that's put into the human body.
The potential of both developments could be very large. Becker's, in particular, could save tens of thousands of lives, Alfaro said. The CDC says opioid deaths hit a record of more than 49,000 in 2017.
For the Polymer College, the research and development might have greater implications. It marks a new trend in development that involves integrating polymers with other materials, which Becker and Joy are already showing can result in new applications, Dhinojwala said.
"This is a generation of design, where polymers are an important part of it—but adding an important new molecule and the chemistry of that molecule is also an important driver," he said.
More than that, it brings relevance to the college and to polymer science and engineering generally, he said. Young people today want to have an impact and not just invent the next plastic bag or car part.
"That's one of the reasons we (the University of Akron) are successful in biomimicry. The younger generation thinks about sustainability, about water and energy problems. Things like those more societal problems are attractive to the younger generation. Polymers can be cool again," Dhinojwala said.
The college plans to do more work like this, he added. Toward that end, it recently hired Junpeng Wang, a physical organic and materials chemist who previously worked at the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Wang is working on polymers that combine with other materials and emit light under certain physical stress conditions, Dhinojwala said. That could have important applications in structural engineering and other disciplines.