New pill being developed to deliver insulin direct into the stomach wall

by Barbara Hewitt on February 11, 2019

A new pill being developed in the United States containing a tiny needle of compressed freeze dried insulin could replace daily injections for people with diabetes.

Scientists have created a capsule, the size of a blueberry, which has a disc made of sugar which dissolves in the stomach, releasing a spring which allows a needle made of compressed insulin to inject it into the stomach.

Insulin Pill

(By Photomaxx/Shutterstock.com)

In tests in animals, the researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that they could deliver enough insulin to lower blood sugar to levels comparable to those produced by injections given through skin.

‘We are really hopeful that this new type of capsule could someday help diabetic patients and perhaps anyone who requires therapies that can now only be given by injection or infusion,’ said professor Robert Langer, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and one of the senior authors of the study.

Several years ago, along with Giovanni Traverso, an assistant professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and a visiting scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Langer developed a pill coated with many tiny needles that could be used to inject drugs into the lining of the stomach or the small intestine.

However, they have now changed the design to have just one needle, allowing them to avoid injecting drugs into the interior of the stomach, where they would be broken down by stomach acids before having any effect.

The tip of the needle is made of compressed, freeze-dried insulin, using the same process used to form normal medical tablets. The shaft of the needle, which does not enter the stomach wall, is made from another biodegradable material.

Within the capsule, the needle is attached to a compressed spring that is held in place by a disk made of sugar. When the capsule is swallowed, water in the stomach dissolves the sugar disk, releasing the spring and injecting the needle into the stomach wall.

The stomach wall has no pain receptors, so the researchers believe that patients would not be able to feel the injection. To ensure that the drug is injected into the stomach wall, the researchers designed their system so that no matter how the capsule lands in the stomach, it can orient itself so the needle is in contact with the lining of the stomach.

The researchers drew their inspiration for the self-orientation feature from a tortoise known as the leopard tortoise. This tortoise, which is found in Africa, has a shell with a high, steep dome, allowing it to right itself if it rolls onto its back. The researchers used computer modelling to come up with a variant of this shape for their capsule, which allows it to reorient itself even in the dynamic environment of the stomach.

This helps to ensure that the needle is in contact with the tissue when it is injected and that if a person were to move around or the stomach were to growl, the device would not move from its preferred orientation.

Once the tip of the needle is injected into the stomach wall, the insulin dissolves at a rate that can be controlled by the researchers as the capsule is prepared. In this study, it took about an hour for all of the insulin to be fully released into the bloodstream and used a dose of five milligrams, which is comparable to the amount that a typical diabetic would need.

After the capsule releases its contents, it can pass harmlessly through the digestive system. The researchers found no adverse effects from the capsule, which is made from biodegradable polymer and stainless steel components.

The MIT team is now continuing to work with Novo Nordisk to further develop the technology and optimise the manufacturing process for the capsules.

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