Inside Rebecca Carrier’s Advanced Drug Delivery Research Lab: How a Practical Problem can Turn into One’s Life Work

ChE Professor Rebecca Carrier is researching the interactions between materials and biological systems, with a current focus on the intestinal environment and drug delivery, as well as retinal and gut epithelial repair.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Alena Kuzub. Main photo: Rebecca Carrier, associate chair of research in the department of chemical engineering, studies interactions between materials and biological systems, with a current focus on the intestinal environment and drug delivery, as well as retinal and gut epithelial repair. She is the principal investigator at the Advanced Drug Delivery Research Lab at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Professor Rebecca Carrier’s “gut lab” at Northeastern was born out of a big problem in the pharmaceutical industry.

It was not enough to develop a new active drug compound to bring a new cure to the market. Each drug needed a unique formulation that would allow the body to dissolve and absorb it, but there was no easy way to come up with such a formula in each case.

“One problem I saw as a formulation scientist was that a lot of what we did was trial and error,” says Carrier, associate chair for research in the chemical engineering department, professor of chemical engineering with affiliations in bioengineering and biology.

Usually, people prefer to take drugs orally rather than via an injection. But many drugs have very low solubility in the gastrointestinal tract or they don’t pass across the intestinal wall. Therefore, they can’t be delivered orally. Because of that, pharmaceutical companies sometimes abandon developing a drug because there might not be enough market interest for it otherwise.

Carrier decided to leave the industry and return to academia to find solutions.

“That problem prompted this whole big area of research that we do now,” she says, “what we call mechanistic studies and modeling of drug delivery.

Lab samples in a small glass caseLab samples under a microscope

Advanced Drug Delivery Research Lab at Northeastern University works on developing gut models that will allow to visualize and test hypotheses about the upper gastrointestinal tract and its microbiome. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Since she first joined Northeastern in 2003, Carrier has raised almost $20 million of external funding for her research; made pioneering advances in the drug delivery field; co-created a computational model capable of predicting oral drug absorption rate; invented a device used in cell culture research; and co-founded a company, MechaSim, that is focused on designing effective drug delivery systems for the pharmaceutical industry.

Her research at the Advanced Drug Delivery Research Lab has been closely related to the gut function which prompted her to seek gut models that could be used to study drug transport as well as mucus layer disruption with exposure to certain substances that may be present, for example, in food.

Someday, she hopes her research and practical work through MechaSim will give the pharmaceutical industry a tool that can help design drug products rationally, Carrier says, streamlining the resource-intensive drug development process and enabling oral drug delivery of compounds that might otherwise require injection. This tool will predict ahead of time how much of a drug will show in the patient’s blood if a delivery system is designed in a specific way.

“About 90% of what we do are benchtop experiments where we simulate the intestinal environment,” she says.

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Faculty: Rebecca L. Carrier

Related Departments:Chemical Engineering