Research – Ionic Liquids: A novel green approach to the development of anti-inflammatory drugs

Article by Isabella Stein (Laidlaw Scholar 2021, Pharmacy)

I’ve had six weeks of mayhem. Beautiful mayhem. Some things work, some things don’t. However, to quote The Mandalorian “This is the way”, and rightly so.  

The six weeks of research have flown. I find that when you are working in a lab-based environment you feel a little disconnected from the outside world. It’s like living in a microcosm; I breathe recirculated air, I listen to the conversations of the radio, I live within the boundaries of glass flasks.  

I spent a large part of my summer in a lab. My project at the most basic level, was essentially making tablets and then, ironically, finding a way to destroy them. As I type this blog post, I realize that I truly enjoyed this process, albeit it sounding futile. My research focused on the development of ionic liquid medicines. This is a novel type of formulation approach which minimises or cuts out entirely the need for harmful solvents. I focused in particular on anti-inflammatory based medicines, those that help reduce pain and inflammation. My goal was to create a novel “green” formulation approach which would increase the drugs solubility (ability to dissolve) whilst simultaneously being a more environmentally friendly method than current approaches.  

Research does not always follow a clear-cut path and may not always yield tidy results. This is to be expected. It is hypothesis driven. It is okay to admit that a project had hiccups or didn’t go as planned. In my case, there was a period of time that was incredibly challenging, and I questioned whether I would ever get to the tabletting stage of the process. I spent the bones of a week trialling different quantities of constituents to spray dry. Spray drying allowed me to convert the liquid into a powder which had key characteristics enabling it to be compressed into a tablet. At first, nothing seemed to work. The spray dryer was not my friend. Hours were spent cleaning the machinery, reassembling the parts, pinpointing the exact part of the process that let me down. The most challenging part of my research, and indeed any research, is the unpredictability of the process. Nothing is definite. It is so much easier to interpret the past than it is to predict the future. I have never felt more reliant on chance and coincidence. Formulating ionic liquids seems easy when written down on paper, but the truth of the matter is that when dealing with ill defined concepts, it is impossible to know in practice with 100% certainty whether the exact combination of constituents will form an ionic liquid. 

There were times I felt drained, weary and exhausted from repetitive experiments, altering minor parts in the hopes of subtle change. I now see that this was part of the research process. Smooth sailing is rare and almost something to be suspicious of, and yet, my summer was entirely rewarding. I became engrossed in my work, caught up in the excitement of the chemistry and lost in the fascinations of small actions with big consequences. 

Towards the end of the project, the pieces began to come together. I found myself enjoying interpreting data and comparing results across various analyses. I experienced and learned good laboratory practice, experimental and critical evaluation skills and collaboration. I became confident with lab techniques and became comfortable critically analysing and interpreting data. One of the key skills to learn from my summer research was how to work as a team member in a collaborative research environment. As my research evolved I found myself developing contacts within the lab, learning from people and introducing myself to new perspectives, which shed light on gaps in my research. Even at such an early undergraduate stage, I feel as though I have been given an experience which will vastly broaden my horizons.  

I am not looking back through rose-tinted glasses; this research was difficult and at times exhausting. Of course, it is going to be hard, never easy. At times in a game of chess, one meets a stalemate. However, the beauty of research compared to chess is that in this standstill moment, the game does not end, it is not announced a draw. It is with perseverance and returning to the drawing board that it can be overcome, and other avenues can be explored. It is after trial and error that learning follows. The mistakes you make and challenges you face today, provide reason for tomorrow’s success. 

It’s worth it. It’s mayhem. Beautiful mayhem.  

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