New Smart Pill Releases Insulin in the Stomach, Could Replace Injections for People with Type 1 Diabetes

Smart pill releases insulin
A research team led by MIT developed a smart capsule that could deliver oral doses of insulin effectively (Image credit: Felice Frankel)

For people living with diabetes taking insulin injections multiple times a day is an annoying experience. However, since insulin is a protein, it cannot be easily put into the form of a regular pill. A team of researchers at MIT, Harvard, and Novo Nordisk, the world leader in insulin production, have now developed a drug capsule that could be used to deliver oral doses of insulin, potentially replacing the injections that people with type 1 diabetes have to give themselves every day.

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The pill is about the size of a blueberry and it contains a small needle made of compressed insulin. This insulin is injected after the capsule reaches the stomach.

In animal tests, the drug has been shown to deliver enough insulin to lower blood sugar to levels comparable to those produced by injections given through skin. The test also showed that the device can be adapted to deliver other protein drugs.

“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 senior study author Robert Langer, a professor at the David H. Koch Institute, and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

The researchers made the tip of the needle with nearly 100% compressed, freeze-dried insulin, utilizing the same method used to form tablets of medicine. The needle shaft, which doesn’t enter the stomach wall, is made from another biodegradable material, reports MIT news.

Insulin delivery
Image credit: Giovanni Traverso (YouTube)

The needle is attached to a compressed spring inside the capsule. A disk made of sugar holds the spring in place. When the capsule is swallowed, water in the stomach dissolves the sugar disk, releasing the spring and injecting the needle into the stomach wall.

As the stomach wall has no pain receptors, the scientists believe patients would not be able to feel the injection.

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“As soon as you take it, you want the system to self-right so that you can ensure contact with the tissue,” says 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, who is also a senior author of the study.

MIT graduate student Alex Abramson is the first author of the study which appears in Science. Others in the research team were the scientists from the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.