Metamodern Science and Technology: Needles

“This could be a way that the patient can circumvent the need to have an infusion or subcutaneous administration of a drug.” – Giovanni Traverso (MIT).

By Marshall Helms
Image (above) from Lemelson-MIT Program

There are a lot of finicky patients who simply hate needles. Children often have the most difficulty. We have to coerce them with diversionary tactics and heroic ballads. But what if taking a shot wasn’t such a hard pill to swallow? Researchers at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital have come up with a solution. Imagine swallowing a capsule lined with miniature needles along its outer shell. As it bounces around the stomach and digestive system these tiny needles permeate the tissue, injecting the medication along the way.

Some medications break down in the stomach long before they can reach the bloodstream, making injections and transfusions the only effective way to administer the drug. According to Carl Schoellhammer, a chemical engineering graduate student at MIT, patients who don’t adhere to regimens requiring injections, can create for themselves additional hospitalizations costing in excess of over 100 billion dollars a year. Avoiding shots means to avoid medication crucial to their treatment or recovery.

The mPill has not yet been approved for human testing, however clinical trials with animals have been showing encouraging results. The capsule is now being tested with Insulin, but the goal is to be able to deliver biopharmaceuticals or antibodies for cancer treatment and autoimmune disorders, directly into the blood stream.

The mPill as it’s called is receiving some attention from several big players in the pharmaceutical industry, who at this time shall go unnamed. The pill is an acrylic capsule, 2 centimeters long and 1 centimeter in diameter, and includes a reservoir for the drug. The exterior is lined with hollow, stainless steel needles about 5 millimeters long. Newer concepts of the prototype include fabricating the micro-needles from degradable polymers and sugar.

Metamodern Science and Technology: Needles
Design concept for the mPill


Getting stuck with needles in the gut does not sound like a viable alternative to most, but since there are no pain receptors in the GI tract, the patient won’t feel any discomfort during the treatment. This invention serves an important role for those fearful of needles and maintains the integrity of the drugs or biologics by avoiding the digestive system altogether.

Biologics are a class of drugs that are normally administered through vaccines. These compounds are constructed with larger molecules. Before they can be completely absorbed, the stomach acids and enzymes will have greatly reduced the strength of the intended dose. Biologics include a wide range of products such as vaccines, blood and blood components, allergenics, somatic cells, gene therapy, tissues, and recombinant therapeutic proteins (FDA).

“The kinetics are much better, and much faster-onset, than those seen with traditional under-the-skin administration,” Traverso says. “For molecules that are particularly difficult to absorb, this would be a way of actually administering them at much higher efficiency.”



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