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Peptides are large molecules made of strings of amino acids found in medications to treat conditions from diabetes to multiple sclerosis, and food and skin care products. However, most peptide drugs are delivered via injection. A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Chemistry professor is joining forces with scientists from Eli Lilly and Company, a Fortune 500 company and one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, to invent a way to administer peptides orally.

Associate Professor Rui Sun will receive a $260,000 grant for his selection to the Lilly Research Award Program. Since 2011, the program has provided scientists with an avenue to partner with global researchers to collaboratively advance research projects.

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Substance permeates through cell membrane through a complicated, multidimensional pathway.

A fear of needles and the discomfort associated with injections have adverse effects on patient compliance. The delivery of peptides through food, medications, etc., is very challenging due to the harsh environment in the gastrointestinal tract, and has required complex formulations with permeation enhancers (PEs) to achieve maximum effectiveness. However, identifying useful PEs has been difficult, and there is currently no way to transfer knowledge gained from one peptide to another.

Sun’s research hopes to create that knowledge by building a molecular picture of how PEs enhance permeation of peptides. PE design would no longer be an inefficient iterative process, but rather one guided by hypothesis-driven experimentation with fewer test and learn cycles.

“This is an exciting opportunity to bring our collaboration to the next level and tackle this critically important issue in drug development,” Sun said. “And in addition to the potential breakthrough in science, it offers our students valuable experiences of working on projects with pharmaceutical applications, which leads to the next step in their career.”

Sun is a 2022 UH Mānoa Regents’ Medal for Excellence in Research awardee, which recognizes a faculty member’s scholarly contributions that expand the boundaries of knowledge and enrich the lives of all in the community, nation and the world.

Eli Lilly and Company student intern

Christopher Kang, a second year PhD candidate in chemistry, will join Eli Lilly and Company as an intern this spring. Since he was an undergraduate student at UH Mānoa, Kang has been working on a collaborative project on drug permeation, and this experience paved his way to internship. Kang is part of Sun’s research group.

The Department of Chemistry is housed in UH Mānoa’s College of Natural Sciences.