Shuttling medicines via blood cells

People with chronic inflammatory disorders regularly take high doses of steroids over long periods. This anti-inflammatory therapy can relieve symptoms of cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, and other ailments but over time can lead to osteoporosis and diabetes.

If lower steroid doses would fight inflammation, patients could avoid the side effects. Toward that end, researchers have devised a way of encapsulating the drugs inside a patient’s own red blood cells.

“There is no peak of concentration . . . as you would get soon after taking a pill or using an inhaler,” says lead researcher Mauro Magnani of the University of Urbino in Italy. “Instead, the patient always has a low but clinically relevant dose. The total amount of drug administered can be much lower–one-tenth to one-twentieth the oral dose.”

Magnani and his colleagues took blood from 10 people with cystic fibrosis. After isolating the red blood cells, the researchers placed them in a dilute saline solution that makes the cells porous. This permitted a synthetic steroid to diffuse into the cells. The scientists then reinjected the steroid-bearing cells into their donors.

Low but clinically effective concentrations of the drug were present in the patient’s blood a month after the treatment, Magnani and his colleagues report in the June Gene Therapy.

Red blood cells could also be used to deliver a variety of other drugs and even carry genes to tissues for gene therapy, Magnani says. He and his colleagues are now testing whether red blood cells can shuttle a drug against HIV.

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