Real Innovation Awards 2017: The Alexander Fleming Serendipity winner

Physical chemist Jeff Weer invented the first and only dry-powder inhaled antibiotic for cystic fibrosis patients. His inspiration came from the most unexpected source: baseball.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 02 Nov 2017

Most people, faced with the same question, would simply assume that there is no meaningful connection between baseball and a brand new treatment for chronic respiratory diseases like cystic fibrosis and COPD, and move on. But happily physical chemist and keen amateur baseball pitcher Jeff Weers is not most people.

Working in medical research, Weers was only too aware of the problems with existing dry powder inhalers – chiefly that most of the powder used to deliver the drug gets stuck to the sides of the respiratory tract rather than making it to the lungs where it is needed. So he started to wonder about the nature of the powder particles themselves.

He knew from his baseball experience that a perforated, lightweight, hollow plastic kids’ ball not only travels much more slowly than a solid match ball, it can also be made to follow a much more curved trajectory.

Wouldn’t hollow inhaler particles of the same shape be similarly more likely to follow the many twists and turns of the human respiratory tract, and thus penetrate much more deeply than existing solid inhaler particles?

It took the former head of pharmaceutical development for Novartis in San Carlos, California, 20 years to make the idea into commercial reality, but it turns out that the answer is yes. Respira’s TOBI Podhaler uses just such lightweight, hollow, perforated particles  - albeit rather smaller than a baseball, at about 10 micrometers in diameter - to carry drugs right into the lungs where they do most good.

The porous particles are created by a proprietary spray-drying process, and the system is three to four times more effective than conventional inhalers for treating cystic fibrosis. The original inhaler has now been joined by further treatments based on the same technology, for COPD – which the WHO estimates kills around three million people a year, mostly in low to middle income countries.

With funding of $5m from backers including the Cottonwood Technology Fund Respira now has a full professional management team on board, with Weers as chief technology officer. The firm is now ‘aggressively’ pursuing other opportunities for its proprietary technology in the $52bn respiratory drugs marketplace, potentially helping millions more suffers lead longer and better quality lives – and all because of Jeff Weers and a kids’ plastic baseball. 

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