Photopharmacology for on-demand and localized targeting of drug action against epileptic seizures

Area of Knowledge: Physical sciences, Mathematics and Engineering 

Group Leader:

Pau Gorostiza, Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) ·
Nanoprobes and nanoswitches group

Clinical researcher:

Javier Aparicio, Hospital Sant Joan de Déu ·
Hospital Sant Joan de Deu


A major difficulty in developing clinically useful nanomedicines is to deliver drugs with spatiotemporal precision and pharmacological specificity to produce therapeutic effects. The unmet need of rapid, reversible, and localized drug action is utterly exemplified in focal epilepsy, a disease characterized by seizures that are due to a transient state of synchronized firing of a localized population of cortical neurons.

To address this issue, one possibility is to use light, which allows turning on and off the pharmacological action of photoswitchable drugs locally and on demand. The aim of this project is developing photoswitchable drugs with antiseizure activity, testing their efficacy in brain slices and in vivo, and building devices to illuminate and activate drugs noninvasively.

Our long-term goal is developing an all-optical theranostic platform for epileptic patients based on a non-invasive portable headset device that can (1) monitor brain activity and detect impending seizures, and (2) remotely terminate them by photoactivating an antiepileptic drug on demand in the focal zone.

The project entails highly multidisciplinary research (organic and medicinal chemistry, electrophysiology, fluorescence imaging, in vivo recordings, medical electronic devices) and will be co-supervised by a clinical epileptologist (Javier Aparicio, head of the epilepsy unit at the Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, HSJD) and by an expert in photopharmacology and neurobiology (Pau Gorostiza, IBEC). It has a strong translational component including the characterization of devices and photoswitchable drugs in human tissue, and in vivo assays in models of epilepsy. It will provide a novel bioengineering strategy for drug targeting that is personalized to the focal site of each patient, and that can be generally applied in precision medicine (from localized tumors to bacterial infections and chronic pain), in addition to a disruptive treatment modality for focal epilepsy.


We are looking for a candidate with a degree in organic or medicinal chemistry, pharmaceutical science, biochemistry, cell biology, neurobiology, or with a human biology / medicine background which would place more emphasis on the translational applications.

The candidate will design, synthesize, and characterize (in vitro and in small animal models) a library of photoswitchable compounds, among which we expect several to display novel activity in neurons, based on previous PhD projects. If his/her background is in physiology or medicine, he/she will use the already existing compounds at IBEC to develop therapeutic applications. These compounds allow unprecedented experiments for (1) functional mapping of endogenous proteins in intact brain, which has a fundamental character, and (2) remotely controlling neuronal excitability in wildtype animals, in the context of diseases like epilepsy, which will be greatly fostered by the formal collaborations with a clinician.

The compounds developed in this thesis will be susceptible of protection by patent. They constitute the key technology underlying the on-demand and localized targeting of antiepileptic drug action. Thus, in addition to a strong academic outcomes like articles and presentations in meetings, the project offers potential innovation and market impact. In addition to the multidisciplinary training in all the required technical methods, the candidate will also benefit from a wide diversity of training opportunities in complementary skills offered by a basic research institute like IBEC and an advanced neurology hospital like HSJD.

Additional website

  1. Gorostiza publications and citations

  • Aparicio publications and citations