Diabetics Could Soon Swallow a Capsule Instead of Injecting Insulin

This new painless method of delivering insulin was inspired by nature.

Apr 17, 2019


Diabetics Could Soon Swallow a Capsule Instead of Injecting Insulin | This new painless method of delivering insulin was inspired by nature.

If you had a choice between swallowing a pill or giving yourself a painful injection to treat a chronic disease the choice would be obvious. After all, who wants to regularly stab oneself with a needle. It was obvious to researchers at MIT who have developed a new method of delivering insulin for people that have type 1 diabetes that is convenient, portable, and pain free.

Pills are easier to use and more likely to be taken than injections but not all drugs can survive the corrosive churning trip through the stomach into the intestines and the bloodstream and Insulin is one of them. This is why insulin still has to be injected. Finding such an elusive method has been the holy grail of Diabetes researchers.

The team spent years working on finding a solution and they finally a very unique method of insulin delivery that fits in a blueberry size capsule that contains a small needle made of 100 percent compressed freeze-dried insulin according to MIT News.

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 Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor, a member of the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and one of the senior authors of the study.

This prototype is the newest of a slew of designs – the first of which was a pill coated with many tiny needles – that could be used for injecting drugs into the stomach wall that was developed by Langer and Giovanni Traverso, a visiting scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering  and the senior author of the new study that was published on February 7 in the journal Science.

According to the study, inside the capsule there is a needle that is attached to a compresses spring that is held in place by a disk that is made of sugar and dissolves when the capsule is swallowed. The stomach has no pain receptors so the researchers believe the injection will be totally painless.

One of the issues that the team had to overcome was to make sure that the capsule was self-orienting and would right itself so that the needle is in contact with the stomach wall. “As soon as you take it, you want the system to self-right so that you can ensure contact with the tissue,” Traverso said.

The inspiration for the method they used was found in nature, by a special orientation feature found in the leopard tortoise. The tortoise has a shell with a high, steep dome that allows itself it to right itself if it flipped on its back. The researchers used computer models to come up with the shape of the capsule so it could do the same.

The study showed that once the needle is injected, it takes one hour for the insulin to be fully released into the bloodstream. In the tests in pigs, it showed that the method delivered 300 micrograms of insulin. The dose was recently increased to 5 milligrams (the dose that type 1 diabetic need to currently inject up to several times daily).

Maria José Alonso, a professor of biopharmaceutics and pharmaceutical technology at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, described the new injection capsule as “radically new technology,” that could benefit many patients according to MIT News.

“We are not talking about incremental improvements in insulin absorption, which is what most researchers in the field have done so far. This is by far the most realistic and impactful breakthrough technology disclosed until now for oral peptide delivery,” said Alonso.

The MIT team is working with Novo Nordisk, a Danish multinational pharmaceutical company, to continue to develop this new technology and to optimize the manufacturing process for the capsules so that this method of drug delivery can be used for any protein drug that normally has to be injected, including the ones for rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease.

“Our motivation is to make it easier for patients to take medication, particularly medications that require an injection,” Traverso said. “The classic one is insulin, but there are many others.”

The new capsule has not been used in human trials yet, but if successful, this method would be a huge pain-free and more convenient improvement over insulin injections. Hopefully it will be coming to a pharmacy near you in the near future.  

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Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.