A Conversation With an Engineering Pioneer: Dr. Nicholas Peppas

We recently sat down with the chair of the biomedical engineering department to get more insight into his work, its impact on society and the future of drug delivery systems.

nicholas peppas

When it comes to drug delivery systems, Cockrell School of Engineering professor and biomedical engineering department chair Nicholas Peppas is the exemplar.

A highly accomplished pioneer in the field, Peppas is not only the winner of more than 100 awards and distinctions, he is also one of the most cited engineers and scientists in the world. He was the first to develop the theories and equations that led to the design of a wide range of new delivery systems. For example, his Peppas equation explains the diffusion of drugs, peptides and proteins in controlled release devices — today, it is known throughout the world as the standard method of analysis for such systems.

The Athens, Greece native has worked with numerous companies on novel delivery systems, has founded three companies and holds more than 30 U.S. and international patents. As chairman of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and as the Fletcher Stuckey Pratt professor in both the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering and UT Austin’s College of Pharmacy, Peppas naturally takes a multidisciplinary approach to his research, which has continually led to new, innovative medical systems and devices that have improved patient treatment and changed lives.

When the university prepares for the launch of the new Dell Medical School in 2016, Peppas’ expertise as a leading biomedical researcher, inventor and pacesetter will surely be called upon. We recently sat down with him to get more insight into his work, its impact on society and the future of drug delivery systems.

What is the most exciting aspect of your work?

Nicholas Peppas: Working with undergraduate and graduate students, teaching them how to solve problems and preparing them to enter society with all the tools that will allow them to succeed. We at UT are committed to educating our students to become good, concerned and productive citizens.

What inspired you to enter your field? What initially drove you to conduct research in drug delivery?

NP: The defining moment in my life was in October 1967, when I was a sophomore in chemical engineering at the National Technical University of Athens (NTU). I heard and read about Christiaan Barnard and the first heart transplant, and I was fascinated by the associated medical technology. I decided to study as much as I could in the then-new field of biomedical engineering. After graduating from NTU in 1971, I was able to get a research assistantship to work at MIT with the great educator and researcher in the field, Ed Merrill. What an experience, what an education... Merrill is the “academic father” of the field and has educated so many generations of biomedical engineers. He is still active today at the age of 90.

How do you feel when a new drug delivery system you created gets approved, enters the market and begins improving the lives of patients?

NP: My contributions to the field and my possible solutions to certain medical problems stem from a strong belief that we are all well educated to help our patients — to provide a quality of life to our patients and fellow citizens. The supreme satisfaction of all who work in the medical field is to see patients live a better and longer life. For me, the biggest reward is when I see or hear our patients talking about and enjoying their new lives after a new biomaterial, a new organ or a new medical device has been used in them.

What are you currently working on and what is the problem you’re trying to solve?

NP: I’m currently focusing on the delivery of high molecular weight therapeutic agents, specifically proteins such as interferon beta (for treatment of multiple sclerosis), growth hormones, calcitonin (for treatment of osteoporosis), etc. I am also working on the delivery of siRNAs and microRNAs for a number of diseases, including Crohn's disease, as well as delivery of hydrophobic therapeutic agents such as chemotherapeutics, for cancer treatment.

What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you face in your work?

NP: The biggest challenge is to find methods of precise delivery of therapeutic agents at specific sites in the body with specific rates (amounts) at specified time intervals. In addition, major emphasis is given to cellular delivery, gene therapy and personalized treatment.

If drug delivery research was not hindered by lack of funding, what kind of future could you imagine? How would patients benefit?

NP: Drug delivery research is an area where funding is available by federal, state and private foundations. The field is so innovative and so important for the quality of life of our patients that good basic and applied research continues to be funded. But more funding is always needed in order to find solutions to critical medical problems. A higher level of funding will allow advanced studies for the early introduction of new treatments into the market.

This funding not only allows us to come up with important solutions, but it is also important in supporting young generations of engineers and scientists who pursue education or research in the field. For example, in my 38-year academic career, we have had 770 undergraduate and graduate students pass through my laboratory and work on original research on drug delivery and related biomedical fields. More than 200 postdocs, visiting scientists and graduate students have worked in our labs. And later this year, we will graduate our 100th Ph.D. student. This simply cannot be done without adequate funding.

Generally, where do you see the field going? What might be the next big breakthrough in drug delivery systems?

NP: Finding more inexpensive systems that can control the cost of health care will always be a priority. Also, there continues to be work on advanced delivery systems, the so-called intelligent systems that can respond to a disease by recognizing one of its early causes and providing a treatment. Additionally, I foresee advancements in personalized medicine and drug delivery, targeting to specific sites and delivery of multiple drugs in one formulation/device.

"The supreme satisfaction of all who work in the medical field is to see patients live a better and longer life. For me, the biggest reward is when I see or hear our patients talking about and enjoying their new lives after a new biomaterial, a new organ or a new medical device has been used in them."