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Building a Scientific Home for Nervous System Delivery Researchers

Shanta Dhar (top left) and Elizabeth Nance (bottom) shared their vision for the Nervous System Delivery Focus Group with me (top right).

On August 2nd, following a successful 2021 Annual Meeting, CRS launched its eighth Focus Group (FG): Nervous System Delivery (NSD). Within the CRS community, FGs are established for narrow, specialized subjects in topic areas relevant to the CRS mission. They provide opportunities for scientific interaction, knowledge exchange, community building, and networking with field leaders.

The five inaugural FGs-- Bioinspired and Biomimetic Delivery, Gene Delivery and Gene Editing, Nanomedicine and Nanoscale Delivery, Oral Delivery, and Ocular Delivery-- launched just before the 2018 Annual Meeting. During that meeting, each FG coordinated specific scientific sessions, meet-ups, and award ceremonies. Later that year, CRS launched focus groups on Transdermal & Mucosal Delivery and Immuno Delivery. This year, NSD FG co-chairs Shanta Dhar and Elizabeth Nance saw an opportunity to expand the impact of the program to research of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. They recently sat down with me to share their vision for the group and for the future of NSD research.

Shanta Dhar is an Associate Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, and Assistant Director for Technology and Innovation in the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her lab entered the field of NSD research from a materials perspective and a little bit of luck: as she began her first faculty position, and before she had an animal protocol, she shipped a new polymeric nanoparticle formulation to a contract research organization for a biodistribution study. As she recalls, they sent her the results and said, “You know what? A portion of your nanoparticles ended up in the brain, which might be very interesting!” This finding led to more than a decade’s worth of work on this technology in small and large animal models for the treatment of brain cancer, HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders, neurodegeneration, and more.

In contrast, Elizabeth Nance always knew she would work with diseases of the nervous system. “My earliest-in-life memories of diseases affecting my family were neurological diseases.” With many family members affected, and her own personal experiences with concussions and migraines for most of her life, this field “has always been present as an area of focus for me. I wanted to get into the scientific research of it, particularly from the perspective of technology development and problem solving.” Now an Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington, she uses nanotechnology to probe and treat the diseased brain with a specific focus on neonatal and pediatric populations. To Elizabeth, her and Shanta’s converging paths into the field are a small example of the broader diversity they want to capture in the FG. By bringing together people who approach the same problem from different ways, “it allows everybody to have a space where they can learn from others” in order to advance the field.

Bringing together people from many areas of the field is baked into every aspect of the NSD FG. “Our vision is to have an inclusive group for the whole nervous system to be represented, at every level: trainees, clinicians, industry professionals, academic researchers, entrepreneurs,” Shanta said. She and Elizabeth are particular about going “beyond brain cancer and neurodegeneration” to diseases of the spinal cord and peripheral nervous system, pain medicine, pediatric patient populations, and other sometimes overlooked areas in the field. They want to see a true partnership between academic, clinical, and industrial expertise. “I think that’s what I’m really excited about, people coming together from early stage idea development, hypothesis testing, all the way through to how do you actually get this into people across a wide range of areas and diseases… I think getting that industry and clinical integration and perspective will really push the field forward in a way that will result in a reinvestment in our technology area,” said Elizabeth.

In particular, they see the NSD FG leading the way for clinician integration within CRS. They want to build upon CRS’s existing infrastructure for integrating industry and academic perspectives-- both co-chairs agree this is one of CRS’s strengths-- and make more targeted efforts to engage clinicians. “We absolutely cannot be successful in this field without clinical expertise,” Elizabeth told me, and then Shanta shared a story of how clinical collaboration drove her research forward. She works with Mike Ivan, a neurosurgeon at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, who provided her with tissue samples from patients with glioblastoma. Using these cells, they tested nanoparticle-mediated delivery of glyocolysis inhibitors to slow tumor growth. Unfortunately, this project wasn’t successful. As they looked more closely at the cells, they learned that the tumor’s primary energy source was actually fatty acid oxidation, and eventually the team developed nanoparticles which were successful at inhibiting tumor growth. “Having access to a clinician and clinical population allowed us to take this direction, which would not happen otherwise,” Shanta reflected. Elizabeth continued, “We want our clinical collaborators to have a scientific home where they feel their expertise is valued, appreciated, and integrated, and that they’re contributing to the advancement of what science and industry is doing.”

As Shanta and Elizabeth build a scientific home for others, they are also building one for themselves. In a medical department now, Shanta misses working closely with chemistry- and materials-minded colleagues. Elizabeth describes having to go to several different conferences a year-- “brain conferences, clinical conferences, niche ones in each of those areas, technology conferences, professional conferences”-- in order to stay up-to-date with the full context of her work. They see the NSD FG as their opportunity to build a new home fully focused on technology development for nervous system disease. They want to create a space that will highlight the breadth of work happening in the field: the incremental steps that take existing technologies to new applications, as well as the larger developments and discoveries which accelerate progress. This knowledge-sharing is valuable to not only experienced academics, clinicians, and industry professionals but also trainees, for whom seeking out a community can sometimes be overwhelming and isolating. As Elizabeth says, “[Our field] is so nuanced and complex that people need a space to really get into the complexity and nuance of it. It will be a lot of fun to provide, create, and grow this space for the community and have it sustained for future people in the field.”

The NSD FG is free to join for CRS members and will be hosting its inaugural events, a virtual meet-up and speaker series, starting this fall. Join the email list here and follow us on Twitter at @CRS_FG_Nervous. We look forward to growing this community within CRS!

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