Quirks and Quarks

Swallowing needles packed in a turtle shell to treat diabetes

The device aligns itself with the stomach lining and injects drugs from the inside

The device aligns itself with the stomach lining and injects drugs from the inside

Orally dosed pills deliver insulin to the body by self-orienting towards the tissue wall and inserting a small drug post into the stomach lining. (Felice Frankel)

Injections are used to manage an array of common health conditions ranging from diabetes to allergies to rheumatoid arthritis.

But injections have their drawbacks, even beyond the fear and discomfort. Studies have shown that diabetics on average start injection therapy 7.7 years after they're eligible for treatment, partly due to anxiety about regular injections. Compared to pills, the initiation delay and compliance rate are much worse.  However ordinary pills can't be used to deliver many drugs, including insulin, because they are destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract.

Now a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a device shaped like a pill that contains a kind of needle that injects drugs from the inside.  It promises to be a lot more like taking an aspirin than getting a shot.

Tortoise-shaped pills 

The pill device is about the size of a pea with design inspired by the African leopard tortoise.

The tortoise has a unique shell shape that allows it to right itself easily. The researchers imitated that shape to make their pill orient itself appropriately in the stomach so that the injection system is aligned properly to the wall of the stomach. 

Alex Abramson, a graduate student at MIT, holding an oral insulin pill. (Xiaoya Lu)

Alex Abramson, the lead author of the research paper and a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT, tested the device and its ability to deliver insulin to the body for the treatment of diabetes.

The insulin is stored in a solid form and makes up the tip of the microneedle housed inside the pill.  The needle is attached to a compressed spring and held ready by a layer of hard sugar. 

Once ingested, the device drops to the bottom of the stomach and orients itself. Moisture in the stomach dissolves the sugar, releasing the spring which drives the drug-tipped microneedle into the stomach wall where it is absorbed into the bloodstream.

Painless and easy to use

The injection is painless since the stomach has no pain receptors, Abramson said.

Abramson tested the pill in pigs and showed that insulin was taken up almost immediately after the pill was delivered, and the animal's blood glucose dropped by 50 per cent in the first two hours after treatment, which is similar to traditional insulin injection.

"Anybody who takes any sort of injection drug knows it's a huge pain to take that injection device with you," said Abramson. "But this pill, you can practically put it in your pocket and take it whenever you need it. We really hope people who are delaying their insulin initiation will go to the doctor and say 'Oh wow, there's this new pill form of insulin. We're ready to take it.'"

His team expects to conduct human trials in the next three to five years, and projects another five years for the product to go to market.