Jindrich Kopecek, distinguished professor of bioengineering and of pharmaceutics and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Utah, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Kopecek, along with 67 other new members and nine foreign associates, were honored for making “outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature,” and to the “pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.” 

Kopecek was honored specifically “for contributions to the design of hydrogel biomaterials and polymeric drug delivery systems.” Election to the NAE is among the highest professional distinctions an engineer can achieve.

Kopecek began studying biomedical polymers in the early 1960s, when the field was still new. He has devoted his life’s work to biomedical polymers and hydrogels (biomedical polymers suspended in water) becoming an early pioneer in the field of targeted drug delivery. In the 1970s, he invented a copolymer called HPMA, which was first used as a blood plasma expander, and later, as a drug delivery carrier to treat cancer.

Today, Kopecek leads the Biomedical Polymers Laboratory at the University of Utah to further the research and development of targeted drug delivery for various cancers and osteoporosis.

Kopecek and his team are exploring a number of methods to treat ovarian cancer, including combination therapies, such as conventional chemotherapy, photodynamic therapy (a cancer treatment consisting of a photosensitizer and light), and HPMA combined with vitamin A. 

He is also developing a new multiple-therapy approach to target prostate cancer with water-soluble HPMA copolymers. The copolymers contain a component that specifically goes after prostate cancer cells and a drug that causes cells to self-destruct through a process known as “apoptosis,” or programmed cell death. HPMA-drug combinations also may be used for the treatment of diseases other than cancer. Kopecek is designing therapies specifically targeted to bones that treat osteoporosis and other skeletal diseases. They are using an established bone-growing agent called prostaglandin, which is delivered by the hydrogel and released over time to grow bone. 

Another current project in Kopecek’s lab is the design of “smart” biomaterials for drug delivery that sense specific environmental changes in the body and adjust accordingly.

“Smart biomaterials use the principle of self-assembly, meaning that they order or arrange themselves through physicochemical interactions,” he says. “Their unique properties make them especially useful for drug delivery.”

The newest project in Kopecek’s laboratory is the design of HPMA-drug delivery copolymers that break down over time. “Incorporating degradable bonds into the structure of HPMA copolymer carriers enhances the time the nanomedicines stay circulating in the blood,” he says. This provides a window for the polymer-drug combination “to find the cancer cells and improves their efficiency.” The University of Utah’s Technology Commercialization Office recently filed a patent application for this technology.

Read the University of Utah news release.