Most drugs are administered in pill form, but some have to be injected because they would otherwise be broken down by the gastrointestinal tract. This limitation mostly applies to protein-based drugs. Insulin, essentially a small protein (aka peptide), is by far the most injected medication in the world. It saves lives, but injections can be pretty brutal on many people with diabetes, particularly young children and elderly people.
Now, researchers at MIT and Novo Nordisk, the Danish company that effectively controls the insulin market, have joined forces to create a swallowable pill that can carry and deliver insulin into the body.
The pill can pass safely through the stomach and reach the small intestine thanks to a polymer coating. Once in the small intestine, the pill opens up thanks to a mechanism that activates once the surrounding pH is about 6. Three appendages pop out that have microneedles on their surface. These let the appendages stick to the interior wall of the small intestine, a surface lacking in pain receptors. Because there’s a drug filling the interior of the appendages, the microneedles serve as a route for the drug to reach the tissue. To aid in safety and to make sure that the device doesn’t block the narrow lumen of the small intestine, the appendages break apart soon after delivery.
The device was tested on pigs and it was shown that, when using insulin, the drug can be delivered in useful quantities and it is quickly absorbed into the body soon after administration.
While the new technology was developed to aid in the delivery of insulin, it should be just as applicable for enzymes, antibodies, hormones, and RNA-based drugs.
Study in Nature Medicine: A luminal unfolding microneedle injector for oral delivery of macromolecules
Flashbacks: Microneedle Drug Capsule Ferries Drugs Safely Through GI Tract, May Replace Needle Injections; Electronic Capsule for Delivering Drugs Deep Down the GI Tract; Pill Expands In Stomach to Stay For Weeks Delivering Medication