By Kate Cunningham / Advance at UNM
“Bubble tea” inspired new drug delivery system
UNM professor Heather Canavan sat in her office in the Centennial Engineering Building, still grossed out from a colonoscopy prep drink she had taken two days earlier as part of her treatment for breast cancer. The gallon of gunk she had to drink was so awful that she was complaining to a student.
“What I was really frustrated by was that the (colonoscopy) test itself is not bad,” Canavan said. “It’s the preparation that was really hard, and unnecessarily so.”
The student, Phuong Nguyen, had dropped by with a lunch for Canavan that included Bánh mì sandwiches and bubble tea. Canavan, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, was curious about the drink, also known as boba tea. She took a sip.
As Canavan considered the beverage, Nguyen described how it contains tapioca balls that can be chewed or sucked. Canavan’s mind went to thoughts she had been having on how to create a better experience for patients who need gastrointestinal procedures.
“I thought ‘that’s exactly what we need, is something where instead of tasting the colonoscopy prep or having that weird viscous feeling, it could be something that you could either chew or just suck down,’ ” Canavan said.
The current prep process involves dissolving a packet of a polymer blend into four liters of water, and then chugging the entire concoction to clean out a patient’s bowels.
Instead of asking patients to consume so much liquid in a short amount of time, Canavan pictured a smaller drink that contains balls of stimulant-responsive polymer that discharge the medicine once they are in the stomach. The prep drink also could be much tastier, she thought. And serving sizes could be tailored to patients’ body weights — different from the one-size-fits all amount that is prescribed now.
She set to brainstorming with Nguyen, a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering.
“That was on a Friday. And then, by the next week, we had written a patent, we had written a proposal and we founded a company,” Canavan said.
A bubbling idea and a growing team
Nguyen was finishing an MBA at UNM and had business on her mind. She used those skills to co-write the patent on the idea and co-found the company that hopes to put the new drug delivery system on the market. Canavan said Nguyen’s contributions have been a driving force behind the project.
“I really felt like this project wouldn’t have happened without Phuong because I never would have had the bubble tea. I never would have had the insight. I never would have pushed forward to create a company if I didn’t have a student who was figuring out this is how we you know, apply for a business license,” Canavan said in a recent interview.
And so the effort behind it started to grow.
Soon after the fortuitous lunch in 2017, undergrad student Darnell Cuylear, a UNM biology major who is minoring in management and chemistry, applied to work with Canavan. But because of her cancer diagnosis, she had been scaling back on work.
“I was really blunt and I said … I had wound down all of my research. Basically, Phuong was the only student that I still had. And I said…, I don’t really know how this is going to work. This is totally a new area,” Canavan remembers saying.
It was a new area on a personal level as well. Canavan’s diagnosis in 2015 made her refocus on what was most important.
“I knew I still wanted to work with students, I really liked being a professor, but I wanted to do things that are for more immediate improvement of human health,” Canavan said. “In particular, I wanted to do things like this where it’s not necessarily the big question of ‘how do we improve the detection of cancer, how to we solve cancer’… it’s not that big question, (instead) it’s ‘how do we make it better for the patient?’”
The group working on the project by then had grown to 12 people. On a recent day, Nguyen and Cuylear were conducting experiments in the lab, working with tiny red hydrogel balls they hope will carry the medicine to patients.
Like most research, it is taking time to come up with the right combination.
“Initially when we first started, we tried one formulation and it didn’t work. It was like a little goo,” Cuylear said. “But after a couple of trial and error things, we were able to actually show we could make the gels. From there, we started doing stability studies in different (pH levels.)”
The pH levels are important because the medicine being delivered needs to release at a certain time after being ingested.
“So, we’re making gastric simulation fluid to actually show that it releases in the actual solution that we want it to,” he said.
As the students work on the experiments, they also have presented the idea at pitch competitions, including at the Rainforest Student Pitch Competition.
“It was a really fun experience (at the talk) because you are talking to a group of people who may not know the science behind it. So, you really do have to get into layman’s terms and hope they understand,” Cuylear said. “So, like preparing it in that way was a lot of fun because it helped me really understand the need.”
Getting the product to market
Canavan’s research background is in “smart” or bioactive polymers and so she was already familiar with some of the key components of the new drug delivery system the team is working on, which includes a polymer that’s already FDA approved. The approval of that component hopefully means a quicker time to market, Canavan said.
In the meantime, the team is applying for more money to continue research and to eventually move the product to the market. The goal is to end up with a product that’s more of a general delivery system that can be used with a variety of drugs for various applications.
“So, this means that instead of being just fixed on this one project, it means that this is like a cargo delivery system. Like the popping bubbles that (Nguyen was) talking about, we were thinking that would be good because then you can put in electrolytes. Again, with the idea that you don’t want people to become super dehydrated from cleaning out their bowels. But then also, you can put in antiemetics to make people less nauseous,” Canavan said.
The overall process is quite complex, and the team has a large white board in Canavan’s office filled with information just on the immediately approaching deadlines.
As for a name for the product, Canavan and Nguyen one day texted back and forth with ideas. Nguyen came up with “Bubblyte,” a sort of play on the words bubble tea and the name that’s commonly used now for the prep drink.
“It was sort of based on the commercial name for what people currently take and it’s called Golytely. Which is a total misnomer,” Canavan said.
Critical funding and support
While many aspects of the projects are coming together well now, one of the team’s first proposals didn’t get funded, which Canavan described as normal.
The project also was helped along by a $10,000 “Women in STEM” grant competition run by Advance at UNM, an NSF project to recruit, retain and promote women and minorities in science fields.
The grant was a small amount compared to other funding provided to academics by federal sources such as the NSF and NIH, but it instrumental to the project because it paid for key parts of the experiments with the hydrogels, including how they would react in various types of juices that could form part of the delivery system for patients.
“Since (the Women in STEM award) is unrestricted funding…we didn’t have to explain to a program manager why we needed $450 worth of every juice under the sun. You know, which sounds like a really weird expense but it is something that we need to do,” Canavan said.
That support helped the team do research that showed a need for the idea, Canavan said.
“But also, it gave us I think a little bit of confidence that we could strike out into a totally new area.”
The project also wouldn’t have happened without the diverse perspectives of team members, who come from a variety of backgrounds.
Nguyen said working with Canavan on the project has allowed her to try new things.
“I think what she does really well especially now is just kind of giving students a chance to do well and she acknowledges a lot of it. And so, it makes kind of new students see if you perform and if you do something well, you are not going to be punished for it,” she said. “Or if you I guess in a way, overstep boundaries in the boundary of like oh, you are not supposed to do this in science. Or you are not supposed to kind of do this research in biology. Or you are not supposed to do this research in engineering because this is not engineering enough. It kind of shows like actually, we can do all.”
For Cuylear, who graduates in May and is headed to the University of California — San Francisco for a dual-dentistry and PhD program, the opportunity to collaborate with others has been really beneficial.
“I think the emphasis that we have is on collaboration,” he said. “We have such different backgrounds, if someone wasn’t there, you wouldn’t have got to that answer. And then, just to go back a little bit from that, it’s really great having the opportunities that professor Canavan presents for us.”
Creating more opportunities for students
Five years from now, the team hopes their product is on the market and helping the 17 million of people who undergo colonoscopies every year.
For her part, Nguyen said she is looking at the more immediate future.
“For the immediate future I’m going to the UNM School of Medicine. One of the big things they emphasize is doing research projects. What I really want to do is try to find a gastroenterologist that would be interested in letting us try this on possibly mice and then, humans to get like the first phase of clinical trials done. Hopefully, I’ll find a partner who is much more experienced in manufacturing drugs, who would be willing to take and essentially purchase and license the project.”
Canavan said she’s looking forward to the possibility that the project could help more students at UNM gain valuable research experience.
“If this project is able to launch something great, that would mean more opportunities for more students here. I think one of the things that I have really come to appreciate about students at UNM is that the students that I have in my group are not people who came from super privileged backgrounds,” she said. “In fact, our students come from very diverse backgrounds, and that can make them very creative with how to do things on a budget. I want UNM students to know that there’s definitely a place for them, and theirs might be the next bubble tea idea.”