Photopharmacology - the drugs of the future

  • The researcher Xavier Rovira promotes molecular photopharmacology research projects
  • The leading international figures in the field met at the UVic

Imagine a drug that we can put into the human body and leave it inactive until we tell it when, where and how we want it to act. Imagine that we use light to activate and deactivate this drug in the part of the body we want, for as long as we want, and at the intensity that we want. All this will be possible in a few years' time with the application of photopharmacology, an emerging branch of science that develops therapies based on the administration of photosensitive compounds. Photopharmacology is also one of the areas of expertise of Xavier Rovira, a specialist in molecular pharmacology and a member of the research group TR2Lab (Tissue Repair and Regeneration) at the University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC).

"When we use light-controlled drugs, we can focus the effectiveness of the medication on the organs or tissues that need it, rendering it harmless to the rest of the body and improving the effects of the therapeutic activity," explains Xavier Rovira. In short, he says, "its precision and location means that as a technique, photopharmacological treatments are a less invasive technique, which can achieve optimum results with minimal secondary effects." Its foundations can also be applied to a long list of diseases, including cancer, chronic pain and diseases of the central nervous system, as well as diabetes and blindness.

Photopharmacology for the heart

Rovira's research focuses on cardiac photopharmacology and more specifically, on the treatment of arrhythmias that "not only occur in a very specific organ in the body, but in a very specific part of that organ." "Why should we reduce the heart rate of the entire heart if we can find a way to reduce only the rate of the affected part?" says Rovira. He believes that new therapies will also eliminate "the toxic effects on the body and the consequences for the central nervous system" of current drugs.

Rovira: "Why should we reduce the heart rate of the entire heart if we can find a way to reduce only the rate of the affected part?"

The team in the Molecular Photopharmacology research line, which he coordinates, also includes the doctoral student Anna Duran and the fourth year student on the EHEA Biotechnology degree course Marc Alemany, whose Final Year Project covers the field of photopharmacology. Their projects are also undertaken in collaboration with researchers at the IQAC-CSIC (Institute for Advanced Chemistry of Catalonia - Spanish National Research Council) and with cardiologists at the Doctor Josep Trueta and Vall d'Hebron hospitals. Together, they are now launching new projects to tackle the treatment of complex arrhythmias and heart attacks by means of photosensitive drugs.

Second international symposium at the UVic-UCC

Although photopharmacology is a very new research field and the researchers are not willing to give timeframes for its effective application, major progress has been made and very encouraging results achieved over the last decade. Some of these breakthroughs were presented at the UVic-UCC in the second international symposium based around this discipline, which took place on 1 and 2 November, and brought together leading figures in this field on the Vic Campus. Around 130 people from universities and research centres in 15 different countries participated in the event, which was jointly organised by the UVic-UCC, the Institute for Advanced Chemistry of Catalonia - Spanish National Research Council (IQAC-CSIC) and the Bioengineering Institute of Catalonia (IBEC).

The University became a meeting and debating forum for researchers for two days

Over two days, the University became a meeting and debating forum for researchers, who presented innovative light-based diagnostic tools and therapies that are currently in the development stage, and technologies that are emerging in this field, ranging from drugs to optoelectronic devices. Ben Feringa, of the University of Groningen, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016 for the design and synthesis of molecular machines, and Dirk Trauner, of New York University, who is developing compounds that are pharmacologically activated and deactivated with light, and used as a molecular prosthesis in the treatment of blindness, gave two of the twenty of the papers on the agenda.

Among the breakthroughs that were covered at the event were microsystems that can be implanted in the human body and regulated by Bluetooth to release drugs at a local level, presented by Jae-Wong Jeong, of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; personalised treatments for chronic pain, presented by Cyril Gudet, of the Institut de Génomique Fonctionelle (IGF); and cancer treatment based on the controlled release of drugs at the point where the tumour is located, developed by Edith C. Glazer of the University of Kentucky.

Scientific and social impact

However, as well as sharing the latest new ideas, the symposium was above all a forum for fostering the creation of synergies and cooperation between centres and researchers. "A very enriching debate took place to highlight problems, define solutions, align strategies and visualise future developments, which was one of the main objectives of the event," explains Xavier Rovira. He says that the symposium's scientific impact is becoming apparent a few months after it was held, and it "now needs time to mature."

Rovira: "We placed the UVic-UCC in an international research context at a high scientific level and we were able to explain the contributions that photopharmacology can make to the science and medicine of the future to society"

According to Rovira, the "social impact" obtained is equally important, or even more so: "we placed the UVic-UCC in an international research context at a high scientific level, we put our ability to organise an event of this size to the test, and we were able to explain the contributions that photopharmacology can make to the science and medicine of the future to society." He says that is essential for the future of this discipline, because "it is society that ultimately determines where the government's investments go" and because these forums may inspire interest in research among current students.

"We must make them realise that the research is very stimulating and not at all humdrum" and that "doing research does not mean being shut away in a laboratory, but instead writing articles, working in teams, forming partnerships, training people and a great deal more besides." Rovira points out that in the case of photopharmacology, there are many opportunities for students on bachelor's degree programmes such as Biotechnology, Medicine or Biology, because "it is experiencing exponential growth due to its great potential, in both the development of innovative research tools and the discovery of new therapies."

What is photopharmacology?

Photopharmacology is based on administering photosensitive compounds as drugs which are only activated and take effect in combination with light. This specific characteristic provides a high level of control over the administration of medications and therapies, since it means that the specific point of the body where it is applied and the duration of the application can be decided. This precision and location means that as a technique, photopharmacological treatments are less invasive, and can achieve optimum results with minimal secondary effects.

Although its history dates back to the 1960s, photopharmacology has primarily developed over the last ten years. During this period, a significant critical mass of researchers has been created at research centres and universities around the world, who work in the field from various perspectives. It is a multifaceted science, which includes biology, pharmacology, physics, chemistry, engineering and medicine, among other fields. Its applications are also extremely wide-ranging: it may be therapeutically useful in a wide variety of medical fields, within which neurosciences and cardiology are particularly important. Some applications that are being studied could also provide substantial improvements in pathologies such as diabetes and chronic pain. Photopharmacology can also be used as a research tool, and can be combined with other technologies, such as materials nanotechnology.

Xavier Rovira

Xavier Rovira

Xavier Rovira is a biologist, a doctor in Neurosciences and has a master's degree in Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology. His main research area has been molecular pharmacology and more specifically, the activation mechanisms of G-protein coupled receptors, which have led him to focus on the field of photopharmacology in recent years. Rovira joined the UVic-UCC and the TR2Lab research group two years ago, as part of a competitive project of the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness (MINECO), which funds R+D+i projects led by young researchers with a significant scientific background.

His recruitment enabled the group to establish a new research line, focusing on molecular photopharmacology. According to the coordinator of TR2Lab, Marta Otero, "in a multidisciplinary and translational group like ours, in which the projects we do range from the most basic research to clinical and applied research, his recruitment enabled us to make progress and gain ground in basic research, which we had carried out to a much lesser extent until a short time ago."