What’s better than developing a device that could revolutionize
the treatment of herpes?
Doing it again.
In 2006, Towson biology professor Barry Margulies and a graduate student submitted a patent application for a silicone-based implant to deliver anti-herpes drugs. Now he’s returned to the patent office with an updated version. This time, the implant is biodegradable, designed to break down naturally in the body over time.
About 80 percent of the American population is affected by some form of herpes virus, the most well known of which cause cold sores, genital lesions and shingles. While the virus can be suppressed if patients remember to take a daily pill, that means a lifetime commitment for those suffering from a disease with no known cure.
That’s why Margulies and his team of students are working to find a better way.
The idea for a controlled-release herpes treatment has been on Margulies’ mind since the early 1990s.
“It just seemed crazy that patients have to take a pill every single day. I wondered if we couldn’t devise a way to deliver these drugs automatically. I thought we could put it under the skin, right where the virus is, and you wouldn’t need to worry about a pill ever again,” says Margulies. “It would be a fire-and-forget-it approach—less intrusive in patients’ daily lives, and much less expensive.”
So, in the early 1990s, he proposed the idea to his former mentor at MIT and expert in controlled-release medication, Robert Langer. At the time, knowledge of the medications for herpes made a controlled-release option simply unfeasible. But a mere decade later, the anti-herpetic landscape had changed, and Margulies thought it might be possible.
It was. And since his initial breakthrough in 2006, Margulies has dedicated nearly all of his research time to refining the device.
The latest iteration of the implant measures about a half-inch in length and resembles a fine strand of uncooked spaghetti. (As it should—for years, Margulies and his students manufactured silicone-based prototypes with a pasta maker. But, unfortunate for Williams-Sonoma, the new devices are produced with more conventional laboratory equipment.)
Like its silicone-based older sibling, the new implant delivers the FDA-approved anti-herpetic drug acyclovir. The silicone version proved effective in preventing herpes outbreaks in mice; Margulies and his team will begin similar studies on the biodegradable option this spring.
“The next stage of research is a difficult one,” explains Margulies. Essentially, he and his students know the delivery system works, but they now have to answer two big questions: where in the body would the implant be most effective, and how much drug should it release?
Those questions must be answered before the system can ever reach consumers. But in the meantime, Margulies is expanding his research in animal models.
He and his students are collaborating with a researcher at University of California, Davis to examine the possible effect of an implant for feline herpes—a virus that Margulies says affects “about 50 percent of domestic cats and can lead to a raft of serious vision problems including conjunctivitis and blindness.”
Another possible veterinary application, says Margulies, is equine herpes. The disease is of particular concern to breeders as it causes spontaneous abortions in mares and debilitates racehorses.
For Students, 'A Support System'
“There are dozens of different herpes viruses,” he says. “That gives us many exciting opportunities to explore.”
Margulies humbly credits his student research team with the recent breakthroughs. In fact, one graduate assistant and two undergraduates are listed as co-inventors on his patent applications.
Towson senior Jill Badin has been working on the biodegradable implant for two years. She’s tasked with improving the implant’s release kinetics, or the amount of drug released into tissue.
As she prepares for graduate school in her final term at TU, she says her experience in Margulies’ lab has prepared her for the rigors of the scientific inquiry.
“Dr. Margulies always encourages us to voice our ideas,” says Badin, a molecular biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics major. “We’re in a real lab working on a real project, and he makes us feel like equals. Students are very lucky for this experience.”
But after a decade at Towson spent mentoring dozens upon dozens of graduate and undergraduate students, Margulies considers himself the lucky one.
“At Towson, we have a unique set of pliable minds that aren’t stuck in a particular mode of thought,” he says. “They’re free to think of new ways to do things, and I try to encourage that.
“They do a lot of the thinking, and I just sort of guide them along the way. I’m a support system. Truly, we work as a team. The only advantage that I have over them is experience.”
By Dan Fox. Photos by Kanji Takeno.