New glaucoma treatment in sight
Over the course of a varied career, Russell Tait has come to epitomise the 21st-century notion of the entrepreneurial scientist – someone who is able to translate esoteric technical ideas into real-world impacts.
With 10 separate patent families under his belt, Tait’s latest exploit involves clinical trials of a new drug delivery system. This is an innovation with the power to revolutionise the treatment of life-changing diseases.
His first target is people who are losing their eyesight due to glaucoma. It’s work he is undertaking as founder and CEO of PolyActiva, his biotechnology company that is closely associated with his alma mater, the Monash Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Tait explains that his new technology works at the molecular scale, to deliver controlled doses of a drug via an implant. By handling molecules as if they are Lego pieces, he builds a necklace-like backbone. Molecules of a drug are then studded along the backbone (or ‘polymer’) to form a compound capable of releasing the drug once it’s in the body.
This compound is then formulated into tiny injectable implants with dimensions of just 0.25 millimetres in diameter, 2mm in length and less than 200 micrograms (or millionths of a gram) in weight.
For glaucoma patients, this miniscule payload is delivered to the anterior chamber of the eye, where it goes unnoticed by the recipient.
“Once placed, the implant is designed to respond to moisture in its environment by providing a constant rate of drug release for up to 12 months at the right dose,” Tait says.
“The backbone is also designed to biodegrade into non-toxic by-products, which are cleared from the site and leave no residue.”
The technology has important advantages. For ocular applications, it does away with the need to administer daily eye drops that people notoriously forget to apply or, because of age, are unable to administer.
The eye drops are also known to eventually irritate the eye’s surface, causing people to abandon the treatment. The new drug delivery system overcomes this, since the implant delivers less than five per cent of the drug used in topical drops (because it is released exactly where it is needed).
The ocular implant has successfully undergone phase I and II clinical trials in Australia that demonstrated the formulation is safe and effective.
For phase III clinical trials the implants are being rolled out to a larger test group of people living with glaucoma. Tait is establishing a multi-centre study with a global reach following international interest in the technology. If phase III trials are successful, medications are approved for use.
For PolyActiva, it has been a 10-year journey to get to this point, with Tait backed by years of experience developing site-specific drug delivery systems.
People think that biotech entrepreneurs are motivated by money,” he says. “In fact, what motivates us is to develop new medications to help patients."
"I remember the first PolyActiva implant delivered to a patient – it was a pivotal moment. What moved me then is what inspires me. It’s the ability to help a fellow human being and the satisfaction of improving quality of life.”
Turning a vision into reality
“I’m a visual thinker and for me it’s all about making connections between the human body, the drug chemistry and the required dose,” Tait says.
“That allows me to see what the product needs to look like. It’s then a question of assembling a team and raising the funds to build and test it.”
He is also determinedly focused on real-world problems and how to create practical innovations that benefit people. If that entails acquiring a business degree in order to commercialise a promising product himself, then so be it. He achieved that back in 2005.
“You need to have a passion for this kind of work and be prepared to put in a lot of work and take risks,” he says. “This is a vocation, not a job. Never lose sight of who you are treating and never forget the importance of imagination.”
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