What if, instead of having to brave a hypodermic needle each time you needed a shot, you could simply slap on a patch and go about your day? According to some preliminary research from scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, that possibility may be just a few years off.
The group of scientists, led by Mark Prausnitz, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Georgia Tech, have developed a patch that has five rows of tiny “microneedles” about as wide as human hairs that can be used to painlessly administer vaccines and other medications. To test the efficiency of the new device, Prausnitz and his colleagues gave the flu vaccine to a group of mice, half by way of traditional injection, and half using the new microneedle patch. Later, the mice were exposed to the live flu virus, after which the scientists tested their immune responses and levels of antibodies. They found that the vaccine, administered via the patch, yielded the exact same level of protection as a traditional shot.
Prausnitz and colleagues hope to begin a trial in humans in 2010, but in the meantime will continue with animal studies in hopes of developing a flu vaccine patch. Should they be successful, the new device could dramatically change the way that immunizations are done. The patch is so simple to use—researchers liken it to applying a band-aid—that it could be easily applied by the patient himself, without the help of trained medical professionals.
There are a handful of labs currently working to develop microneedle technology, but this specific patch is the only one so far that has been designed not only to administer drugs through the skin, but also via the surface of the eye. For that application, Prausnitz hopes to have a human trial underway in the next few years—promising news for patients who suffer from conditions such as macular degeneration, which can require regular shots into the eye as part of treatment.