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In conversation with Professor Ryan Donnelly: innovative drug delivery systems

Professor Ryan Donnelly, a leader in pharmaceutical technology, has revolutionised drug delivery research through his work on innovative microneedle systems. Recognised by multiple prestigious awards this year, his work aims to enhance patient outcomes through better medication management. Particularly proud of his recent Royal Pharmaceutical Society Harrison Medal Award, Professor Donnelly speaks to Gerry Hughes about his career journey, pioneering research and his hopes for the future of both drug delivery and the hospital pharmacy profession.

Professor Ryan Donnelly, a registered pharmacist and chair in pharmaceutical technology at Queen’s University Belfast’s (QUB) School of Pharmacy, specialises in developing advanced drug delivery systems to enhance patient outcomes.

Currently, Professor Donnelly is pioneering novel microneedle technologies that aim to replace certain injectable medications. This year, his groundbreaking work has earned him esteemed recognition, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Harrison Memorial Medal, the Transdermal Delivery Kydonieus Foundation Award from the Controlled Release Society and the International Association for Pharmaceutical Technology (APV) Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Having authored more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications, including patent applications, textbooks, book chapters and journal publications, Professor Donnelly continues to drive innovation in pharmaceutical science.

And pharmacists may be particularly familiar with his book on multiple choice questions for pharmaceutical calculations – a staple study resource for pharmacy exams.

Early career experiences

Advanced delivery systems for transdermal and intradermal drug delivery is a niche and highly technical topic, but it’s one that Professor Ryan Donnelly relishes. His passion for the subject is evident and he emphasises the need for this work in designing safe and effective treatments for patients.

Formative experiences early in his career helped to cement his interest in the scientific and academic areas of pharmacy practice, and how he could apply this for the benefit of patients. ‘By being able to do a lot of laboratory work during my [pharmacy] degree and then quite a long project with a very good supervisor, I decided that I wanted to do a PhD and that I wanted to be an academic,’ he explains.

He successfully patented a formulation that he developed during his PhD project – an exceptional achievement at such an early point in his career – and that was only the start of his success.

Graduating with a first-class BSc in pharmacy in 1999, he completed pre-registration training in community pharmacy before returning to QUB School of Pharmacy for his PhD in pharmaceutics. Following post-doctoral research, he assumed the role of lecturer in pharmaceutics at QUB – an impressive accomplishment at the age of 25.

Throughout this early academic period, Professor Donnelly continued practicing as a pharmacist part-time and he emphasises the importance of maintaining this patient-facing role as it ‘was great for giving me proper context in terms of how patients manage their medicines’.

This patient-centred experience inspired him to focus his research on drug delivery systems as he encountered many difficulties that patients experienced in managing their medicines. For example, he describes some patients who, after being prescribed inhalers for the first time, ‘spraying them like air-fresheners’ into a room in the belief that that was how they worked.

‘So, this is what I always try and tell my PhD students: you can think you are very clever in designing a drug delivery system but if an ordinary person can’t understand it, or doesn’t like using it, or thinks it’s too complicated, then your technology is unlikely to be a success,’ he says.

Bench to bedside drug delivery technologies

Having mapped out his career pathway as an academic pharmacist, securing funding was a key element to realising his ambitions.

‘I secured a grant from the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and that was based around delivery of peptides and proteins using microneedles,’ Professor Donnelly says. ‘That is what allowed me to get my foot in the door, essentially, to start building an independent line of research focused on microneedles for delivery of, as it turned out, all sorts of different substances.’

Drawing from his frontline experience as a pharmacist and his scientific passion, he focused on developing advanced drug delivery systems for transdermal and topical applications.  This has led to the investigation of novel drug delivery mechanisms for a variety of conditions, including HIV and other infectious diseases, Parkinson’s disease, psoriasis, cardiovascular disease and for pain management.

Among his many research outputs, Professor Donnelly also filed several patents with collaborators at QUB, including a transdermal microneedle device, a bioadhesive drug delivery patch and nanoparticle pharmaceutical carrier. The bioadhesive patch design was successfully used in photodynamic therapy for patients with gynaecological malignancies.

Upon securing a further grant of over £1m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in 2019, Professor Donnelley’s team developed a nanoengineered microneedle array for enhanced delivery of long-acting HIV medicines. With the aim of improving the delivery of long-acting antiretroviral therapies and patient concordance with these agents, several outputs were achieved including:

Patient experiences and outcomes

One of Professor Donnelly’s leading motivations in his work is to ensure better outcomes and treatment experiences for patients. Speaking about his focus on microneedles for delivering long-acting HIV therapies, he notes difficulties that patients in low- and middle-income countries might experience in accessing and tolerating these agents.

‘If you must walk two days to get to a medical centre, and that’s two days not earning money to feed your family – that’s a big problem. So, the idea is that microneedles could be used to deliver these long-acting drugs, with less frequent patient visits to a medical centre.’

This is just one of the many benefits Professor Donnelly anticipates this innovation having for patient care, with at-home administration being another. He says that by using a fully integrated microneedle drug delivery system, ‘it takes the needle out of the equation and puts these technologies back into the hands of the patient who uses them. This would potentially enable patients to manage their traditionally injectable medicines in their own homes’.

To this end, more research is needed to finesse the system as, Professor Donnelly explains, ‘the challenge is, how to deliver high enough doses without your patch being overly large’.

Microneedles also offer significant advantages in terms of safety and environmental protection. Their single-use design eliminates the need for a sharps disposal process, and their polymer material ensures they cannot puncture the skin more than once.

Professor Donnelly acknowledges challenges in navigating production and regulatory environments in scaling up microneedle technologies for mass production and use. He observes that while no existing licensed drug or vaccine utilise microneedle delivery systems, microneedles are currently being evaluated in clinical trial settings.

For example, a recently completed phase 1 and 2 clinical trial evaluated the tolerability, safety and immunogenicity of a measles and rubella vaccine in children. Published in April 2024, the results demonstrated sufficient safety and immunogenicity data to support the accelerated development of the vaccine technology.

This demonstrable evidence for the safety and clinical effectiveness of the technology will enable future trials to gather and evaluate more data.

Unique position of hospital pharmacists

Professor Donnelly firmly believes that pharmacists, armed with a blend of scientific and clinical knowledge, occupy a unique position within the healthcare system. Their understanding of fundamental chemistry, drug formulation and pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic interactions sets them apart from other healthcare professionals, he says.

For the hospital pharmacy profession in particular, he notes the advantages of an increased clinical focus within undergraduate pharmacy degree programmes. That said, he reinforces how a scientific knowledge base is also important.

‘Everything we do as pharmacists needs to be evidence based, of course. All of that is underpinned by science. We need to recognise that that is what is unique about the pharmacy profession. If we neglect that, then what do we become? We need to be providing something that is unique, and I think our scientific knowledge is what determines that,’ he says.

Regarding novel drug delivery technologies and medical devices, Professor Donnelly believes that hospital pharmacists are key knowledge brokers for other healthcare professionals.

‘I think that as we see ever more advanced medical devices and delivery systems, that’s where a pharmacist in hospital has a key role to play making sure that that everybody understands how that works and what the potential benefits and risks might be. Hospital pharmacists have considerable expertise in dosage form design and are also acutely aware of the individual factors that determine how patients interact with such interventions,’ he explains.

Furthermore, Professor Donnelly acknowledges that such unique knowledge is also important for horizon scanning of incoming drug technologies to prepare health systems to successfully adopt new treatment modalities.

Recognition of drug delivery achievements

Referring to the trio of awards conferred upon him this year, Professor Donnelly says that ‘it’s obviously really nice to be honoured in in this way’.

He is especially delighted by the Harrison Medal award from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. ‘Being a pharmacist recognised by our professional body is fantastic,’ he says. ‘But receiving all three awards was great. I think it’s nice to highlight the work that members of my group have been doing over the past 20 years. Hopefully these awards also emphasise the importance of scientific knowledge to pharmacists.’

Professor Donnelly also expresses his hope that receiving these honours will place a greater focus on the future potential of microneedle delivery systems and that greater funding will be attracted to developing the technologies further. He concludes: ‘Maybe we will see more investment which will ultimately lead to a product that could benefit patients all across the world. As a pharmacist, obviously that’s something that I would really like to see.’

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