Pill inspired by leopard tortoise could replace diabetic injections

Henrietta Strickland
February 9, 2019

Scientists have spent decades trying to develop oral insulin and replace at least some of the daily shots that many people with diabetes require.

The capsule contains a tiny needle that is made nearly completely of freeze-dried insulin, and a spring - all held in place by a disc of sugar. The researchers also say the capsule could be used to deliver other protein drugs.

"Our motivation is to make it easier for patients to take medication, particularly medications that require an injection", said senior author Giovanni Traverso.

Lead author Alex Abramson, a Ph.D. student in the department of chemical engineering at MIT, said, "The system had to be self-orienting". The research team also includes scientists from the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. The research follows on from a previous design of a tiny pill coated with many small needles.

The tip of the needle is made of almost 100 percent compressed, freeze-dried insulin, using the same process used to form tablets of medicine.

Next, they needed a trigger for the needle, which is controlled by a disc made of sugar that holds in place a spring.

Once the pill reaches the stomach, water dissolves the disk, releasing the spring, and pushing out the to inject the stomach with the all-important insulin. There are no pain receptors in the stomach, so the injection shouldn't hurt, the researchers noted. In the case of the capsule, the domed shape ensures that the needle is continually reoriented towards the stomach wall. So, they turned to an unlikely animal for inspiration: the leopard tortoise. This tortoise, which is found in Africa, has a shell with a high, steep dome, allowing it to right itself if it rolls onto its back. There is no indication of when the capsule might come to the commercial market.

"What's important is that we have the needle in contact with the tissue when it is injected", Abramson", said. "Also, if a person were to move around or the stomach were to growl, the device would not move from its preferred orientation".

It's now a distinct possibility, say researchers who have developed a capsule that can deliver insulin once it reaches the stomach.

Diabetes occurs when there are too few beta cells in the pancreas to produce insulin or when they produce very little insulin, the hormone needed to get glucose from the bloodstream into cells.

In tests conducted on animals, the pill worked to deliver insulin to lower blood sugar levels as well as a typical external injection.

In recent tests, this dose was increased to five milligrams, which is approximately the amount a patient with type 2 diabetes needs to inject.

The metal spring and rest of the capsule passed through the digestive system, without seeming to cause any problems.

Once the insulin was absorbed, the capsule, made of stainless steel and a biodegradable material, floated free and was excreted.

Now, researchers at MIT have developed just that - so far, it's only been trialed in animals, but it's certainly an exciting start. They believe this type of drug delivery could be useful for any protein drug that normally has to be injected, such as immunosuppressants used to treat rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease.

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