Published: 14.04.11

At the interface of pharmaceutics

Jean-Christophe Leroux is a trained pharmacist. Today, he explores the boundaries between chemistry, biology and pharmaceutics with a view to creating more effective medication with fewer side-effects.

Peter Rüegg
Jean-Christophe Leroux, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Bio-Sciences (D-CHAB). (Photo: Giulia Marthaler / ETH Zurich)
Jean-Christophe Leroux, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Bio-Sciences (D-CHAB). (Photo: Giulia Marthaler / ETH Zurich) (large view)

What do you consider to be chemistry’s greatest achievement or most important discovery?
That’s a difficult question; I’d say the answer largely depends on your own research interests. In drug formulation, you can’t do any research without acknowledging Paul J Flory and Irving Langmuir for their enormous contributions in the areas of macromolecules and surface chemistry respectively. More recently, key discoveries at the interface between biology and chemistry have revolutionized the way pharmaceutical research is conducted today. These include the development of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method and the discovery of green fluorescent protein.

What do you focus on in your research and what aspects of it are evident or usable in everyday life?
I was trained as a pharmacist, so I was always interested in both chemical and medical science. In my lab, we’re trying to find better ways to administer drugs. Our aim is to improve the efficacy of drugs or reduce their side-effects ̶ preferably without altering the chemical structure of the compound. We develop formulations which are often based on polymers and which influence important biopharmaceutical parameters such as the absorption, biodistribution and elimination of the drug. For instance, we are currently developing synthetic, nano-sized, virus-like particles that could be used to protect and deliver nucleic acids such as siRNA to specific cells. More generally, in everyday life whenever a patient takes a tablet or some other form of dosage, he should realize that a lot of work has gone into optimizing the formulation and ensuring both the chemical stability and the efficacy of the active compound.

Have you got a role model in chemistry? If so, who and why this person?
I have a lot of admiration for researchers who can be at the forefront of several fields at once. There are examples in our own department; but outside the ETH, the work of Professor Jean M. J. Fréchet from UC Berkeley has always been a source of inspiration for me. Although his research activities are extremely diversified (organic, polymer, biological and materials chemistry), he often manages to be ahead in many fields, such as polymer science, drug delivery, nanotechnology etc.. In general, I also tend to admire great scientists who haven’t got too much of an ego. Professor K. Matyjaszewski from Carnegie Mellon University is very well known for his remarkable achievements in controlled radical polymerization, but he’s remained a modest and extremely down-to-earth person.

How will your research field develop? Where does the potential lie?
My research field is evolving with the advances made in chemistry, biology and medicine. Drug molecules are more and more complex (peptides, proteins, nucleic acids) and their administration is becoming really challenging. We really need to improve our understanding of how these newer drugs interact with the biological milieu and cells in order to devise more effective delivery strategies. At the same time, pharmaceutical scientists need to take biopharmaceutical constraints into account very early on in the chemical design of the drug molecules to make the formulation step more efficient. Today, with the rapid evolution of supramolecular chemistry, our field has access to a wide variety of systems to formulate complex drug molecules, and I’m convinced that the best is yet to come.

What term from chemistry should everyone know by the end of the International Year of Chemistry and why?
From a pharmaceutical perspective, the word “excipient”. It relates to all non-pharmacological chemical components that are contained in medication and allow the drug to do its job in a clinical context.

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