By Ivy Banks
Patients with type 1 diabetes may soon have the option of replacing their daily insulin injections with an oral version of the drug. “The stomach is moist and humid. That was the key clue,” explains Dr. Giovanni Traverso of Harvard Medical School and MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Using his expertise as a gastroenterologist, Traverso, who’s also a lead author of the study, worked with engineers and other doctors to develop the potentially revolutionary piece of biotechnology.
The new drug capsule is called the Self-Orienting Millimeter-Scale Actuator (SOMA). It’s about the size of a blueberry, which makes it easy to swallow. Once inside the stomach, the SOMA’s unique leopard tortoise-inspired shape will allow it to remain upright no matter how it lands. This ensures that the capsule will be able to make proper contact with the stomach lining, allowing it to inject the insulin directly into the stomach wall without interference from stomach acid.
For easy delivery, the almost 100 percent compressed, freeze-dried dose of insulin is fashioned into the tip of the SOMA’s needle. This insulin needle is attached to a tiny compressed spring held in place by a sugar disk. Water in the stomach dissolves this disk and releases the spring. This allows the needle shaft – also made of biodegradable materials – to push the needle into the stomach wall and deliver its payload. After the SOMA capsule does its job, its biodegradable polymer and tiny stainless steel components are all able to pass harmlessly through the digestive system.
“What they have done is taken ideas from many areas and integrated them,” explained the chair of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences at the University of California, Tejal Desai. And indeed, the SOMA is a combination of advances in both engineering and medical biology, and a practical lesson in innovative medical technology. Currently, the MIT-led team behind SOMA has been working with Novo Nordisk to optimize the capsule’s manufacturing process.
This new way of providing insulin will help reduce the need for diabetic patients who can’t use needles, to see a doctor or nurse. This will help ensure that they can always self-medicate and allow doctors and nurses to focus more on patients that need their immediate attention. This is especially good news when you consider the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ predictions as shown on Maryville University. It is estimated that there will be an 18 percent growth in the U.S. healthcare industry between 2016 to 2026. This is directly linked to a growing demand for healthcare professionals. This rapid growth and demand has been attributed to many regulation changes, new legislation, and an aging American population. Should SOMA capsules enter into mass production, not only will doctors and nurses have more time for other patients, new pharmaceutical regulations are also bound to follow. In short, this oral replacement to the needle might just be a booster shot that the US healthcare industry needs as it deals with the country’s growing population.
If costs are to be kept low, Novo Nordisk and the rest of the SOMA development team will have to figure out how to manufacture and distribute the capsule alongside commonly used pharmaceutical technologies like slat fillers. For instance, Thomas Packaging’s SureFill 300 is a slat filler that’s able to package 300 bottles per minute. Currently designed for packaging solid dosages across various types of medicine, this device could soon churn out bottles of affordable oral insulin as well. This is good news for the 1.25 million US citizens with type 1 diabetes, as per the American Diabetes Association (ADA), as well as the 84 million adult Americans with pre-diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Apart from people living with diabetes, anyone who needs to be injected with medication on a regular/semi-regular basis stands to benefit from SOMA capsules. Needles can be costly and result in bio-hazardous waste, which requires special disposal methods. The SOMA capsule could potentially replace the need for injection or infusion-only medication.
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Ivy Banks is a writer for the pharmaceutical industry. She believes that medical technology today, aided by advances in manufacturing and engineering, is poised to enter a revolutionary period. This will provide safe and affordable medication to those who need it.