Tiny Is the New Big
It’s been a good couple of years for Professor Jelena Janjic, Ph.D., or “Dr. J.” as she’s called at her academic home, Duquesne University.
A pharmacist and medical/chemical researcher, she received the 2018 Innovator Award from the Pittsburgh Business Times for her research on pain nanomedicine. She gave a TEDxCMU talk at Carnegie Mellon University in March on her innovative work using nanotechnology—the use of minuscule particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size—to treat pain. One millimeter equals one million nanometers, so we’re talking really, really small. She presented her findings at an American Pain Society Research Summit in California in March, 2018, which led to aN NPR broadcast on her findings.
Janjic, a Seneca Drive resident, is associate professor of pharmaceutics at Duquesne’s Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the Mylan School of Pharmacy. Janjic and her husband, Bratislav, a scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, emigrated to the U. S. in 2000 from her native Belgrade, Serbia, where she was a pharmacist and a member of the faculty at Belgrade University. She also holds a doctorate in medical chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh.
Janjic is the founder and co-director of Duquesne University’s Chronic Pain Research Consortium, a multidisciplinary group now composed of 27 faculty representing the disciplines of biology, biotechnology, bioengineering, biochemistry, chemical engineering and pharmacy. When she started thinking about pain research at Duquesne in early 2011, funding for studying pain medication was relatively small. “I came along and said, ‘everyone should study pain,’” she says. So, she gamely invited eight faculty to lunch, and convinced them of her plans to get them on board, “and fed them Milka chocolate,” she says with a laugh. Her lab at Duquesne, she says, is the first nanoparticle lab of its kind which creates and studies pain medicine delivery through nanoparticles.
“Nanomedicine is like a smart bomb.”
-Dr. Jelena Janjic
Her primary focus on theranostic nanomedicine research—studying the interplay of the immune system and nervous system and how the body experiences and processes chronic pain—involves how and why these teeny-tiny particles (one particle is about 100,000 times smaller than a pencil tip) can deliver medicines for inflammation and pain relief much more efficiently, at a fraction of the cost of pain killers.
Janjic’s path of study on chronic pain is personal; she suffers from it, too, and has, on and off, since her late teens. In 2010, she showed up in the ER in unbearable pain. The diagnosis? Chronic Pain Syndrome, for which she received some medicines that “helped somewhat,” she says, but made her thinking foggy. She decided early: no opioids for her pain. She turned to non-medical interventions: mindfulness meditation, which she still practices, playing piano and composing music. Her pain, she says, is largely under control.
Nanoparticles have targeted and assisted the immune system in relieving pain in preclinical models, but there are many more refinements to make. “We need to understand the gender differences in how pain is experienced and processed, for instance,” she says.
The biggest problem with today’s pain medications, continues Janjic, is that they’re inefficient: they don’t identify and follow where the pain comes from. In her TED talk, she explains, “It’s like trying to extinguish a fire in one house by flooding the entire town.” Nanomedicine is like a “smart bomb,” a precision-guided munition traveling right to the site of inflammation, and its efficacy can be imaged and tracked by a physician. Nanoparticles can carry 2,000 times less medicine than a typical dose, which could reduce or potentially eliminate the need for opioids in treating many types of pain: surgical, post-surgical, and perhaps even cancer-related pain.