News Feature | October 2, 2014

MIT's Needle-Pill Could Replace Injections

By Suzanne Hodsden

Scientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital have designed a new capsule that could take the place of injections, offering a less complicated and potentially more effective drug-delivery method for insulin and other biologics.

The catch? The capsule is studded with tiny stainless steel needles measuring 5mm long which are embedded in an acrylic shell. The needles are hidden in a pH-sensitive coating that doesn’t dissolve until the pill arrives in the stomach. The entire pill is approximately two centimeters long, slightly longer than a penny.

The MIT study, which was published this week in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, reported that initial testing conducted on pigs  found no adverse reaction. The capsule requires approximately one week to pass through the digestive system. Because the stomach lining does not contain any nerve endings, the patient would experience no pain.

According to the study, both doctors and patients overwhelmingly prefer oral medications over injectables. Aside from a common fear of needles, patients find pills more convenient. Doctors find that the medicine is distributed in the system more effectively with pills than with subcutaneous injections.

Up until now, however, oral medications have been limited in their scope and out of the realm of possibility for larger and more degradable biologic medicines, which would only be destroyed by stomach acid before the treatment could be absorbed.

Biologics represent a new and revolutionary approach to medicine and are typically comprised of antibodies or recombinant DNA and are used to combat cancer and auto-immune disorders. These new medicines are typically far less toxic to the body than their chemical counterparts, but because of their size and structure, they can only be administered through injections.

This MIT capsule could potentially change the game of biologic drug delivery because, in addition to being more convenient, the method is also potentially more effective.

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

The team plans to continue with the capsule and plans to research whether or not degradable polymers or sugar could be used in place of the stainless steel to minimize safety concerns.

Samir Mitragotri, who is a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara and did not participate in the research, expressed his interest in the capsule’s potential.

He commented, “Oral delivery of drugs is a major challenge, especially for protein drugs. There is tremendous motivation on various fronts for finding other ways to deliver drugs without using the standard needle and syringe.”