British Columbia

New 'microneedles' could save money, time and blood

Painless 'microneedle' promises to make blood testing and medicine delivery cheaper, more convenient and less scary.

UBC researchers develop tiny needles to monitor drug levels and deliver medicine

Hundreds of 'microneedles' penetrate the outer layer of skin without causing any pain. (Sahan Ranamukhaarachchi)

Researchers at UBC and Switzerland's Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI) have developed a new 'microneedle' system that can monitor antibiotic levels, deliver medicine and even keep tabs on doping in athletes.

"The devices are designed to go through the outer layer of your skin, and penetrate into the next layers of the skin, which won't cause any pain or bleeding," said researcher Sahan Ranamukhaarachchi, a UBC PhD student who developed this technology during a seven-month research exchange at PSI.

Heavy duty antibiotics like vancomycin require patients to go into clinics or hospitals several times a day to have their blood samples taken.

"That's an extremely painful process because you have to go into a vein, extract large quantities of blood to do the analysis, and make sure that certain quantities of drugs are present," said Ranamukhaarachchi.

With a 'microneedle' — which is about the length of a dust mite — patients won't even feel the needle. That's because it only penetrates the outer layer of skin, stopping short of the epidermis, where nerves, blood vessels and immune cells live. Then the 'microneedle' sucks out the surrounding liquid, something researchers call interstitial fluid.

UBC PhD student Sahan Ranamukhaarachchi created the 'microneedles' at the Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland. (Sahan Ranamukhaarachchi)

"It's less than a millionth of the volume that you would need for a conventional blood draw," said Ranamukhaarachchi.

With hundreds of needles per square centimetre, each needle is connected to a chip where the drug is analyzed — something that is expected to save time and money.  

Ranamukhaarachchi also hopes it will help patients overcome their fears and anxieties surrounding needles.

"We find patients avoid treatment simply because they don't want to get a needle stuck into the skin or into the muscle," he said.

"I think that this technology will really help people."

With files from Debrorah Goble