Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been collaborating to create new methods of administering medication. Their work is targeting to advance and overcome the complexities of dispensing drugs. Drugs that must be administered into tissue, such as insulin for diabetics, are hindered by the standard subcutaneous injection method. Insulin administered through a syringe has a substantially slower absorption rate in the body than endogenous insulin produced by the pancreas. The pancreas is located in the hub of digestion activity, while injected insulin has a long way to travel before reaching the bloodstream. Researchers formulated a solution to this time delay dilemma: a capsule with microneedles that injects medication straight into the stomach lining. This invention would allow for oral administration of drugs that require higher absorption rates and faster effectiveness.
Two critical points were considered while formulating this device. First, the drug needed to be administered just as well or better than standard injections. Second, and most importantly, the device needed to be safe. Researchers tested the capabilities of the capsule by inserting insulin into the device and conducting oral administration of the capsule to a group of pigs. To compare this method with the current method of injections, the scientists ran a trial in which insulin was administered to the pigs by subcutaneous injection. The differences in results were staggering. Insulin administered through the skin only lowered the pigs’ blood sugar by 20 percent, whereas the insulin administered via the capsule reduced blood sugar by 55 percent. These findings indicated how powerful this tool could be for people facing chronic conditions like diabetes.
The idea of swallowing needles is counterintuitive, and for good reason. In order to test the potential damage these needles could inflict on a gastrointestinal (GI) tract, researchers had animals host the capsules for either 7, 19, or 56 days. Afterwards, the GI tracts of each animal were examined, and the results guaranteed the harmlessness of the capsule; GI tracts were always found to be macroscopically normal. The researchers also emphasized that the GI tract does not have pain receptors. Discomfort, a characteristic that strays people away from standard needle injections, would not be felt with this new treatment.
The Brigham and MIT collaborators are also investigating the key relationship between dosing regimens and viral resistance. The timing of administration is crucial for many drugs, similar to the timely manner of taking birth control pills. If taken at an incorrect time, but in the correct dose, a virus can rapidly become resistant to a drug. Creating a capsule that would administer drugs for a week or longer would greatly reduce the errors that allow viruses to grow. The Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue, Washington found that transitioning from a daily dose to a weekly dose would “improve the efficacy of HIV preventative treatment by approximately 20 percent.”
The problem — creating a capsule with a battery to administer drugs throughout a week — is complex, but the solution is straightforward. The galvanic cell, an invention used by electrical engineers for centuries, proved to have all of the components needed for a battery to fuel a self-dosing pill. The cell is modeled after the simple battery made of a lemon and two electrodes. The two electrodes, one copper and one zinc, are placed on opposite ends of a lemon. The acidity of the lemon combined with the electrodes initiates a chemical reaction that creates electricity. The capsule would replace the acidity of the lemon with the acidity of the gastric juices inside of the GI tract. This fueling method would eliminate common issues that many self-dosing capsule inventors come across, such as the toxicity of batteries and the limitations of battery-life.
By questioning the currents methods that drive medicine, scientists are able to create devices that could revolutionize how individuals live their lives. As the intersection between medicine and technology strengthens, medical innovation continues to reach new heights. Any person suffering from a chronic illness knows how time-consuming the administration of drugs can be. With these brilliant innovations, that unwanted commitment would be lifted from their shoulders.
This research, happening just steps away from Northeastern, has the potential to transform how doctors administer drugs and how patients are affected by those drugs, thus changing the entire field of medicine.