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People who dread the sharp stab of an injection at the doctor’s office may be in luck. A team of researchers from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a capsule coated in needles for patients to swallow, enabling the delivery of drugs directly into the stomach lining.

The prickly pill is meant to overcome a significant obstacle to drug delivery. Medicines made from large protein molecules usually cannot be packaged as pills, because the digestive system would break them down, just like it does to the protein in food. This innovation could allow doctors to more efficiently dose patients with large antibodies — such as those used in cancer treatment — vaccines, and other drugs, which would normally have to be injected under the skin.

According to a press release, the model pills were used in trials to deliver insulin to pigs. Made of stainless steel, the pills contain a pool of insulin in the center and hollow needles on the outside, which pump insulin into the stomach, intestines, and colon over the course of a week. The capsules are as big around as a shirt button and about as long as a thumbnail, making them about the size of a large vitamin.

And fear not for the mouth and throat. The pill goes down coated in a material that dissolves in stomach acid, sparing sensitive inner flesh from getting pricked. When the researchers opened up the pigs after the trials, they found no internal damage. However, they do hope to move toward sugar-based needles in future models to reduce the risk of injury even further.

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Saving skin from the painful jabs of a syringe — while worthwhile in and of itself — is not the only goal of the invention. Injection is an effective but imperfect means of drug delivery. The human body does not always absorb large molecules from drug injections, but in the pig experiments, the insulin in the capsule had a greater effect than insulin shot under the skin, potentially improving upon this issue.

The researchers say the next step is to refine the device so that inner muscles can squeeze out its contents like a tube of toothpaste — allowing for more control over timing.

Drug Delivery Action

The needles can be hollow, delivering the drug as the gut squeezes (top,) or solid, breaking off along the way to lodge in the tract and squirt healthful chemicals (bottom.)

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