Tackling medicine’s biggest problems by thinking very small

USF’s Master’s in Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology program celebrating its first graduating class

A scanning electron microscope image of nanoparticles that have been optimized for drug delivery.

As the technology of medicine and drug development and delivery continues to shrink down to the nanoscale, students at the University of South Florida College of Pharmacy are prepared to be leaders in this cutting-edge field.

USF’s Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology master’s program is graduating its first class of students at the Fall 2017 Commencement ceremony on Dec. 9. It’s a major milestone for the College of Pharmacy and the program’s director and associate dean, Shyam Mohapatra, PhD, a leader in this rapidly expanding field that combines the science of nanotechnology with direct medical applications.

“The developments we are making in this area are going to help millions of patients,” said Dr. Mohapatra, a distinguished health professor in the College’s Department of Pharmaceutical Science and director of the Center for Research and Education in Nanobioengineering at the Morsani College of Medicine. “It’s exciting to be able to do this research but also to prepare the future scientists who will make world-changing breakthroughs.”

The program enrolled its first student, Kathleen Halasz, in January 2015. Three others, Shannon Kelly, Robert Stearns and Tori Bedell, soon joined to form the inaugural class in the fall of 2015. Now, just two years later, over two-dozen graduate students are working toward this degree with 10 more set to begin classes in spring 2018.

For this first graduating class, commencement marks the culmination of years of hard work but also just the start of careers they hope will lead to lifesaving innovations.

“This is a very unique and specific area,” said Halasz. “But, the future of medicine is really headed in this direction. The impact that nanomedicine will have on society is very important, so it’s exciting to be part of this field.”

From left, Kathleen Halasz and Shannon Kelly are the first Nanotech graduate students from the USF Health College of Pharmacy to receive MS degree. Not pictured are Robert Stearns and Tori Bedell.

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the field is defined as science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale – about one to 100 nanometers. For reference, a human hair is well outside this range, measuring approximately 80,000 – 100,000 nanometers wide. The work of nanotechnology takes place at the atomic and subatomic levels, with researchers exploring ways to see and control individual atoms and molecules.

While the theory of nanotechnology began in a physics laboratory in the late 1950s, the applied use of the science in the medical field is still in its teenage years. USF’s Master of Science degree in Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology trains students to understand these nanoscopic concepts and looks at conventional treatments for a variety of diseases through the lens of nanotechnology as a mechanism to improve them.

“Nanotechnology allows for a targeted delivery of medications with decreased toxicity and decreased side effects,” explained Halasz. “Basically, it makes medicine more localized.”

One area seeing exciting developments using nanotechnology is in the treatment of cancers. Researchers at USF and around the world are working to design nanoparticles capable of delivering medication directly to diseased cells, giving doctors the ability to treat this deadly disease while sparing patients many of the debilitating side effects traditionally associated with cancer treatments. Mohapatra says it’s these types of applications that make the technology and this degree program so crucial.

“Nanotechnology is giving us the tools to build better medications,” he said. “So, by giving students an interdisciplinary education in the field, we can really make a lasting impact on the world.”

Dr. Mohapatra, along with the rest of the staff, designed the program to be accessible to as many students as possible. Courses can be taken entirely online or face-to-face in classrooms, and three academic tracks give students the ability to focus their work in the area that best fits their interests.

The program’s first four graduates are all currently applying and interviewing for positions in industry, with several also considering furthering their academic careers through PhD programs.

To learn more about the USF College of Pharmacy’s Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology program, click here.

-Story by Aaron Hilf, University Communications and Marketing, and photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications