The 'Targeted Nano-Pharmaceuticals and Early Diagnostics' cluster brings together about 25 research projects funded by the EU Sixth and Seventh Framework Programmes for Research (FP6 and FP7), under the priorities NMP and HEALTH. The projects are developing innovative therapies, detection and diagnosis methods in the field of nanomedicine and cover a wide variety of diseases including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and osteo-arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. An important element common to each of them is an emphasis on the application of state-of-the-art nanotechnology.
The projects are each of substantial size, with a typical EU funding budget between 4 and 10 million euro. Each of them brings together specialists from 5 to 30 partner laboratories in different universities, research organisations, clinics, industries and SMEs from across Europe to collaborate on the common aim. Each of the projects has a duration of three to five years. While some have recently ended, others are just at the beginning, meaning that the composition of the cluster evolves over time.
The projects in the cluster each have their own research objectives, and much of the research work is confidential to the consortium. However, the projects also share common interests and objectives, and here cooperation and the exchange of information between projects is often possible and beneficial for all.
The project consortia are able to organise education activities, workshops and conferences in cooperation with the other initiatives. All the research teams involved have an interest in being kept up-to-date on future regulatory requirements and procedures, in order to anticipate the likely requirements to gain market authorisation for their new therapies. Measurement and research methods and tools, materials and instrumentation developed in one project can sometimes be used by those in other areas. Cooperation within a project cluster can also be helpful in comparing the performance of different approaches.
The cluster activities promote further networking on a European scale, enabling researchers in the various organisations and countries to get to know and work with each other, thus contributing to the European Research Area. The cluster activities help to increase the visibility of individual projects as well as the importance of the research field as a whole.
'Targeted nano-pharmaceuticals' are designed to better target drugs towards diseased cells, tissues and organs. Diseased cells tend to have specific features on their surface named biomarkers. The targeted nano-pharmaceuticals contain drugs and selectively recognise and bind to the biomarkers on the cells. The drugs are then released locally, resulting in more effective targeting of the diseased cells. Precise targeting of the drugs can reduce side-effects in other parts of the body.
Better targeting also allows higher doses to be administered locally while minimising the side-effects for the patient. Chemotherapy treatment for cancer for example is known to have severe side effects, and the aim is to reduce such negative consequences for the patient by using more precisely targeted nano-pharmaceuticals. Discovering the right biomarkers to target for a certain disease is a key challenge for medical research.
Nanopharmaceuticals may include contrast agents that allow the physician to see the location of the disease (e.g. tumour) on the image of a body scan, for instance with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), X-Ray Computed Tomography (CT) or Positron Emission Tomography (PET). The images can thereby show the location and extension of the disease and can also be used for 'therapy monitoring', i.e. monitoring the effectiveness of the therapy over time.
Furthermore nanotechnology can help in the design of improved drugs that can be administered more easily to the patient, for instance orally instead of by intravenous injections. It can enable the smooth release of drugs over longer time periods, reducing concentration peaks and variations. Nanotechnology can also provide new methods of delivering promising drugs that are not yet suitable for clinical practice because of problems with delivery.
Earlier detection and more precise and personalised diagnosis of disease can help start the correct therapies at an earlier stage in the disease development. Monitoring the effectiveness of a therapy is also highly important. Nanotechnology-based methods promise improved, ultra-sensitive approaches to the detection and recognition of very small amounts of disease-specific peptides, proteins or cells in body fluids (blood, saliva, urine, etc.).
Using such methods, disease detection and diagnosis could be carried out much faster than is possible at present, and at lower cost. The project NAMDIATREAM for example is developing a range of nanotechnology-based methods for detection and diagnosis of disease.
The 'Targeted Nano-Pharmaceuticals and Early Diagnostics' cluster of projects maintains close links to the European Technology Platform for Nanomedicine (ETPN). The ETPN is an industry-lead grouping, comprising European organisations that are actively researching the field of nanomedicine and working together to define research priorities and identify the issues that are important to get research results to patients.