Story at a glance

  • Many drugs have only one way that it can be delivered, whether it is orally with a pill or injected by a needle.
  • A team of researchers are developing a way for a capsule that is swallowed to inject drugs when in the stomach.
  • They’ve successfully tested this technology in pigs.

Would you rather get a shot or take a pill? For most treatments, you don’t have a choice of how it’s delivered. But now a team of engineers and biotechnologists are working on a pill that can automatically inject drugs in the stomach, relieving the need to get an injection from a traditional needle.

In a study published in Nature Biotechnology, a team based at Novo Nordisk, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brigham and Women’s Hospital has developed a capsule that can be taken orally and which injects a drug treatment when it reaches the stomach.

The pill is weighted on the bottom where the needles are and on top is a solid pellet made of sugar. When the pill is in the stomach, the environment and acids there start to dissolve the sugar, which pushes the needle into the stomach lining. A plunger then pushes the liquid containing the drugs through the needle and another plunger pulls the needle back into the capsule. Then the remaining parts can be passed through the digestive system safely.

The capsule can hold up to 4 milligrams of liquid. “If we can make it easier for patients to take their medication, then it is more likely that they will take it, and healthcare providers will be more likely to adopt therapies that are known to be effective,” says Giovanni Traverso, who is the Karl van Tassel Career Development Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in a press release.


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The researchers tested the capsules in pigs using insulin, epinephrine, a monoclonal antibody used for autoimmune diseases and anti-diabetic medication. Then they took blood samples to check if the drugs were delivered and compared it to injections. They found that the levels of the drugs were comparable to typical injections.

This could mean that in the future a wide range of patients might be able to take a pill instead of getting a shot. “We recognize today that pills are the preferred route of drug administration, not only for patients, but also for health care providers,” says Traverso in the press release. 

The team hopes that this technology can one day help many people, though there is much to learn about the technology before it can be used in humans. “Although it is still early days, we believe this device has the potential to transform treatment regimens across a range of therapeutic areas,” says Ulrik Rahbek, who is vice president at Novo Nordisk, in the press release. “The ongoing research and development of this approach mean that several drugs that can currently only be administered via parenteral injections (non-oral routes) might be administered orally in the future. Our aim is to get the device into clinical trials as soon as possible.”


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Published on Sep 16, 2021