Macromolecules in a pill? Tortoise-inspired capsule offers hope in an early test delivering insulin into stomach wall

For many diabetics, needles that deliver their insulin are as crucial as taps that run the water they drink. But a team led by MIT and scientists from Novo Nordisk — the world’s biggest insulin maker — are looking to change that. Reported in Science, the team has created a blueberry-sized oral capsule that delivers an insulin shot inside the stomach once swallowed in rats and swine, and are looking to take the work into humans in three years.

The capsule is inspired by a leopard tortoise — which brandishes a shell that allows the African reptile to right itself if it rolls onto its back. The capsule emulates that, so that no matter how it lands in the gut, a needle inside the pill made of compressed freeze-dried insulin will orient itself to come in contact with the stomach lining. Water in the stomach dissolves a sugar disk holding the needle into place, and since the stomach wall does not contain pain receptors, the scientists anticipate that patients will not be able to feel the prick.

In animal studies, the capsule was shown to deliver enough insulin to lower blood sugar to levels similar to injections administered through skin, and the device can potentially be adapted to deliver other protein drugs, such as immunosuppressants used to treat rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease or even nucleic acids including DNA and RNA.

Bob Langer

“(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 MIT’s Robert Langer who was one of the senior author’s of the study. Langer’s lab at MIT has spawned a string of biopharma companies.

“(If) a person were to move around or the stomach were to growl, the device would not move from its preferred orientation,” said the study’s lead author and MIT graduate student Alex Abramson.

Once injected into the stomach wall, the capsule releases its contents, and disintegrates as it passes harmlessly through the digestive system and is eventually eliminated, the researchers said referring to animal data in their report published on Thursday.

The research was funded by Novo Nordisk $NVO, the NIH and others. To be sure, human trials are still to come and must be cleared before the device can be safely and effectively used. But for the Danish drugmaker, the successful deployment of the product could reinvigorate its long-term growth as it slowly moves away from its dependence of traditional injectable insulin amidst intensifying competition and pricing pressure within the diabetes market.

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