Could swallowing small needles replace injections?

Researchers in the U.S have invented a new acrylic capsule for delivering drugs straight into the digestive tract. It’s two centimetres long, one centimetre in diameter, has a space inside for medication and, oh yes, is covered in needles. When it’s swallowed, it releases the drug into the stomach lining.

As horrifying as swallowing needles might sound, these little ones (although at five millimetres long, maybe not quite as little as you’d like) have advantages over other drug delivery systems. The research team, who came from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital, found that the capsule delivered insulin more efficiently than injections – without any side effects.

They think that in future it will be especially useful for biologics, a type of medication that delivers antibodies, including vaccines and treatments for cancer, arthritis and Crohn’s disease. Normally these drugs can’t be swallowed as they get broken down and absorbed in the gut, becoming inactive. The new capsule means they can be taken orally, removing the need for injections or insertion under the skin. And because it works so efficiently, it should mean dosage can be lowered, thus saving money and reducing the risk of accidental overdose.

Previous research into delivering medication straight into the bloodstream has focused on nanoparticles of specific drugs, but these are expensive and mean making a new version for each specific illness. The needle capsule, on the other hand, can be adapted for use with several different drugs. It does take a week to… um, reappear, but doesn’t appear to cause any damage on its way out of the digestive system. Plus, our digestive tracts don’t have pain receptors so there’s no danger of feeling like we’re being stabbed by tiny needles, even if we are.

It’s still at the prototype stage for now but the scientists are working to make it ready for human trials, including looking at ways to make degradable needles out of natural materials that could be safely absorbed by the body. They’re even researching whether there’s a way to optimise the natural contractions of the digestive tract in order to squeeze medication out of the capsule. That could possibly bypass needles altogether, which, let’s face it, might be best.

Image credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT, based on images by Carol Schoellhammer and Giovanni Traverso.

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Diane Shipley