Public Release: 

Ingestible injections made possible by a tortoise-inspired drug delivery device

American Association for the Advancement of Science

A new ingestible device, inspired by the self-orienting shape of the leopard tortoise's shell, may soon be used to administer drugs by injecting them through the stomach wall. The swallowable, self-orienting, millimeter-scale applicator, or SOMA - designed by researchers including Alex Abramson and Robert Langer - enables the oral administration of fragile pharmaceutical compounds otherwise delivered by injection or intravenous drip. So far, it's been tested in animals only. Oral delivery is often regarded as the simplest and least invasive method to get drugs into the body, and as such, it is a preferred method for drug delivery. However, for many pharmaceutical compounds, like insulin, oral delivery is simply not an option. The harsh environment of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract - its extreme acidity and microbiome activity - can rapidly degrade the fragile biomacromolecules in the constituent drug, greatly limiting drug uptake and bioavailability. While other non-oral methods of drug delivery have been explored, they have only safely achieved bioavailabilities on the order of 1%, according to the authors. To address these challenges, Alex Abramson and colleagues developed a swallowable device capable of attaching itself to the inside of the stomach and injecting a payload of delicate large molecule drugs through the gastric wall. Abramson et al. drew inspiration for the shape of the device from the leopard tortoise shell - a highly curved shape that allows the animal to self-orient to a highly stable upright position if flipped on its back. In the SOMA, the self-orienting shape ensures the device aligns with the bottom of the gastric wall, despite the external forces that may jostle it about. Injection of the device payload was triggered by the dissolution of sugar glass, which is used in the device design to restrain a spring-loaded mechanism. In vivo studies of the device in rats and swine using insulin demonstrated the effectiveness of the delivery method; namely, similar insulin plasma levels as compared to those achieved by traditional subcutaneous injection.

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