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MIT Creates Insulin Pill; Could Eliminate Injections For Diabetes

February 8, 2019

A team of scientists led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has looked to Africa’s leopard turtle to create a potentially revolutionary oral “pill” that delivers insulin through the stomach lining of patients suffering from Type-2 diabetes. People afflicted with that form of diabetes usually require multiple needle injections of insulin a day to counteract dangerous levels of sugar that build up in their bodies. The new pill may completely eliminate such injections, which are often painful.

In designing the small capsule, called a S.O.M.A., or self-orienting millimeter-scale actuator, scientists drew on the curious shape of the leopard turtle shell; that shape allows the turtle to easily right itself should it somehow topple over onto its back. When the S.O.M.A is swallowed, it rights itself inside the stomach, using gravity to land and remain upright on the stomach wall. That orientation will ensure the capsule delivers the needed insulin to a patient via a tiny, biodegradable needle ingeniously placed inside it.

According to MIT News, the tip of the needle is “made of nearly 100 percent compressed, freeze-dried insulin, using the same process used to form tablets of medicine. The shaft of the needle, which does not enter the stomach wall, is made from another biodegradable material.”

The article adds that a tiny coiled spring held in a ready position by a disk made of sugar, compresses the needle once stomach fluids dissolve the sugar disk. The insulin needle then injects insulin through the stomach lining; the insulin is then absorbed into the blood stream. The article further notes the stomach lining is nearly nerve free, so patients will feel no pain from this delivery mechanism.

Insulin delivery, the MIT team claims, will begin within minutes of swallowing and will last several hours.

MIT News notes the tiny pill, after being swallowed and emptied of insulin, will then pass through the digestive tract and excreted.

Testing the new device on pigs shows that the delivery system functions as intended and insulin levels are nearly identical to those attained by direct injection. Researchers also hope the new technology can be used to deliver many other types of medications and hormones that have been only deliverable intravenously.

MIT News writes:

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

The prospects for the new technology has other researchers feeling optimistic. MIT News reports that Marie José Alonso, “professor of biopharmaceutics and pharmaceutical technology at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain” (not involved in the research), said the S.O.M.A. is a game-changer.

“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,” Alonso told MIT News.

MIT News noted that “Novo Nordisk, the National Institutes of Health, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Viking Olaf Bjork Research Scholarship, and the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program,” helped underwrite the S.O.M.A. project. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Novo Nordisk were also involved in the creation of the S.O.M.A. device.

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