Investigator Profile: Q&A with Justin Hanes, PhD

Justin Hanes, PhD, is the Lewis J. Ort Professor of Ophthalmology, with joint appointments in Biomedical Engineering, Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, Environmental Health Sciences, Neurosurgery, Oncology, and Pharmacology & Molecular Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is also the Director of the Center for Nanomedicine, The Wilmer Eye Institute at JHU.

HanesQ. When and how did you get interested in focused ultrasound?
When I met Rich Price at the Whitaker Foundation meeting in 1999, he thought our work matched up well and has been introducing me to the many capabilities of focused ultrasound since then.

Q. How large is your research staff/team?
We usually have 60 to 70 people working on various projects in the Center for Nanomedicine. All projects involve finding new ways to safely and effectively package and deliver drugs and genes.

Q. What is the goal of your work, including research details?
We aim to harness the power of nanotechnology to deliver drugs more efficiently to targeted regions of the body. Rich uses focused ultrasound to non-invasively transport nucleic acids and drugs across the blood-brain barrier (BBB). At Hopkins, we have to make the drug-loaded nanoparticle systems very small and safe to get from the blood into the brain and be able to package what we’re trying to deliver, including small and large molecules. When crossing the BBB, our systems are special because they are designed to not get stuck in the extracellular matrix in the brain so they can penetrate more deeply and spread out and reach more of the cells in the target area. This is the critical piece, especially for nucleic acid therapies. Rich and I have significant funding for brain cancer. Now we are going to work on Parkinson’s disease, too, and we have some interesting data in the area already.

Hanes InfographicQ. What are your grea achievements? Any disappointments?
Much of our basic science work has opened up new avenues of discovery. Several of our fundamental new approaches to deliver drugs to treat different diseases have gone into phase II and III clinical trials. The fact that we can translate our findings into solutions that are helping people is my lifelong goal, and it is very satisfying. In terms of disappointments, I am a glass all the way full kind of person. Research has more failures than successes. The successes keep me going.

Q. What do you see as impediments to your success?
This project will be challenging if we are unable to get high enough delivery levels with acceptable safety.

Q. What is your research wish list?
I would love to be able to move the nucleic acid therapy into the clinic and help people with Parkinson’s disease. That would be amazing. To non-invasively deliver a nucleic acid into the brain that would make the body produce a protein that could help or cure them would be phenomenal.

Q. What comes next?
Clinical trials and more basic research. We need to show safety in small and larger animal models. The next milestone will be to show that it’s going to be safe in the doses that we need. After that, we will need funding to produce the particles in GLP conditions, followed by toxicology studies in that environment. The exact formulation must be ed, and those are the data that go to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to initiating human clinical trials.

Q. What are your key FUS publications?