'Blazing the trail': University of Calgary research could lead to cures for autoimmune diseases

Researchers at the University of Calgary say their work with nanotechnology could lead to cures for Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and many more diseases.

New advances in 'nanomedicine' may one day help people suffering from MS, diabetes and many other diseases

A nanomedicine discovered by Dr. Pere Santamaria at the University of Calgary might be able to reverse autoimmune disorders, many of which have no treatment and no cure. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Researchers at the University of Calgary say their work in the field of "nanomedicine" could lead to cures for Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and many more diseases.

Dr. Pere Santamaria said the process involves "nanoparticles" — thousands of times smaller than a typical human cell — that could be used to stop the body from attacking itself.

 That, he said, could potentially lead to cures for autoimmune disorders.

"There are no drugs that can do that today," said Santamaria, a professor of immunology at the University of Calgary. 

"Other drugs that are being used to treat chronic inflammatory disorders impair the ability of the immune system to do its job, so there are secondary effects and longterm complications … our drugs don't do that."

Pharmaceutical company Novartis has partnered with Santamaria's own company, Parvus Therapeutics, to work on developing the nanomedicines and take the drugs to market.

From treatment to cure

Now with support and funding, Santamaria said the new drug "has the potential to revolutionize medicine" if the drugs pass clinical testing.

Santamaria said autoimmune disorders are caused by white blood cells attacking the tissues in a person's own body.

Pharmaceutical company Novartis has partnered with Dr. Santamaria's Parvus Therapeutics to work on developing nanomedicines to cure autoimmune disorders and take the drugs to market. (CBC)

Type 1 diabetes is treatable with insulin, but there is no cure. It's the same for many other diseases.

"Our drugs aim to resolve the inflammation of the tissue, the attack of the tissue, and resolve that process altogether," Santamaria said.

He said the nanoparticles could halt disorders without impairing the rest of the immune system.

"So we can reset the immune system to its steady state — that means the healthy state — without impairing the ability of our immune system to protect us against infections and cancer," Santamaria said.

Long time coming

Santamaria said the nanoparticles were discovered during an experiment years ago, and the initial test results "made no sense whatsoever." Since that day, the nanomedicines have been in development and he credits the progress to curiosity.

"We almost shoved them under the rug," Santamaria said. "We didn't do that. Fortunately, we were pursued wth curiosity of researching."

Santamaria said the process of taking a discovery from the research laboratory to the marketplace is enormously complex and the drug has yet to go through preclinical trials.

Because nanomedicine is such a new field of research, there is no firm timeline on when the medicines could be available if they pass human trials.

"Our nanomedicine is a new class of drug ... so we're basically blazing the trail," Santamaria said.

"We hope that we can carry that torch and be an example for all the investigators that might follow suit, that may run into discoveries such as the ones that we've made … and hopefully they can follow in our footsteps."

With files from Dan McGarvey