Breaking Through

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Scientists have long sought ways to get drugs directly into that final frontier—the human brain. Now, Impel NeuroPharma, a biomedical startup near Swedish Hospital on Capitol Hill, believes its new delivery system will enable drugs to get past the blood-brain barrier (BBB) to previously unreachable regions of the brain.

Founders Michael Hite and John Hoekman met at the University of Washington. After teaming up, they entered and won the university’s 2008 business plan competition. Hite credits the UW with providing “an environment that young companies can be incubated in” and with giving Impel the necessary resources as it expanded.

The drug-delivery system deposits an aerosol spray of a central nervous system drug and in the upper nasal cavity, effectively bypassing the BBB and allowing for easy absorption into the brain. Hite envisions a disposable device that patients can use at home by themselves. Unlike standard nasal pumps that have a wide, high-pressure spray, Impel's device delivers a narrow, low-pressure spray at a focused angle.

Applying the drug through the upper nose eliminates the need to encapsulate or alter the chemical structure of the compound to get past barriers that tend to reduce a drug’s efficacy. By enabling direct contact with the brain, Impel aims to decrease drug exposure throughout the body and drastically lessen side effects.

Impel’s technology could treat diseases like AIDS and pesticide overdoses more effectively. Presently, even the best drugs cannot eliminate elements of AIDS in the brain reservoir, and overdose victims must go to emergency rooms for treatment. Impel’s device would enable chemicals to actually reach the affected portions of the brain, and also allow customers to treat pesticide overdoses at home.

Hite says Impel will begin the first human study of its technology later this year. The trial aims to treat pain and should provide the company with human data in early 2012. If successful, Impel could revolutionize how effectively drugs treat medical conditions.

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