No one enjoys getting a painful shot. But diabetes sufferers often must accept daily injections as necessary for survival. Some scientists think a solution may be on the horizon. They have figured out how to hide a shot inside a pea-sized pill. Once swallowed, the pill injects its medicine inside the stomach.
The pill was inspired by a tortoise shell—another of God’s amazing creations that researchers look to for ideas.
Patients usually prefer oral treatment—swallowing something and digesting it—to getting shots. Obviously, avoiding painful pinches and pricks is desirable. But some medicines, including insulin, can’t survive the harsh trip through the human digestive system. Injecting into the blood stream has been the best option in those cases.
The new invention comes from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-led research team. So far, it’s been tested only in animals. But if it pans out, it might make not just insulin but a variety of injected medicines easier to take.
For decades, scientists have wanted to develop oral insulin. They’ve tried encasing it to protect it until it reaches the intestines where the bloodstream can absorb it. But some level of injection still needs to be used at this point for effective delivery. Hence—the new pill shot. The ingestible injection could bypass the hazards of digestion, delivering insulin directly through the stomach wall.
“It’s like a miniaturized rocket launcher” for insulin, says Willem Mulder of Mount Sinai’s Translational and Molecular Imaging Institute. Dr. Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist and senior author of the study, adds, “It travels down the esophagus in seconds, it’s in the stomach within a few minutes, and then you get the drug.”
The first challenge was making sure the device lands exactly where it needs to, so that it can poke its medicine into the precise spot—even if the patient is moving around. So researchers looked to nature. They found a solution in the design of the African leopard tortoise.
The leopard tortoise has a steeply curved shell. If flipped on its back, it can right itself. So pill designers crafted a capsule with a similar shape and weighted bottom. Once it reaches the stomach, it automatically rolls in the right direction to latch on.
The pill is equipped with a micro-injector made entirely of dried insulin. It is compressed into a sharp point and propelled by a spring that is bound to a hardened sugar disk. As stomach acid dissolves the sugar, the spring pops and—BINGO! Insulin is shot into the stomach wall. The capsule, made of stainless steel and a biodegradable material, floats free and is excreted.
In a test with pigs, the ingestible injection lowered blood sugar to levels comparable to standard shots—without the painful external poke.