July 26, 2016 5:42 pm
Updated: July 26, 2016 10:29 pm

Researchers develop new painless microneedle system

WATCH: UBC researchers have partnered with Swedish scientists to develop a new product that could be a Godsend for people who are afraid of needles.

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People that tend to be a little squeamish when it comes to needles may, in the near future, not have to screw up the courage for blood tests or getting a shot.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI) in Switzerland have teamed up and created a microneedle drug monitoring system. That means no more standard hypodermic needles that pierce the skin to draw blood or deliver drugs to the body.

Instead this new microneedle, which consists of a small, thin patch with several tiny needle-like projections less than a millimetre long, is pressed against a patient’s arm during medical treatment and measures drugs in the bloodstream painlessly.

Coming up with a new way to administer drugs has been a long time coming. The hypodermic needle is roughly a 160-year-old technology that hasn’t changed much over the century.

Sahan-Ranamukhaarachchi

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“Many groups are researching microneedle technology for painless vaccines and drug delivery,” UBC researcher and PhD student Sahan Ranamukhaarachchi said in a statement.

“Using them to painlessly monitor drugs is a newer idea.”

How does the microneedle work?

The tiny needles are designed to puncture the outer or protective layer of skin — unlike conventional needles which are designed to go through the lower layers that house nerves, blood vessels and active immune cells.

“The microneedles are painless because they are so short in size they don’t go deep enough into your tissue to stimulate your nerve endings or blood vessels. Instead you’ll feel a little bit of pressure… and there is no bleeding at all,” Ranamukhaarachchi said.

Ranamukhaarachchi and his colleagues developed this technology to monitor a particular antibiotic used to treat serious infections. Patients taking the antibiotic are usually subjected to three to four blood draws a day and need to be closely watched due to the drug’s life-threatening and toxic side effects.

But with this new technique researchers found the fluid just below the skin, instead of blood, was just as useful for analysis and less invasive for monitoring levels of the antibiotic. The microneedle collects a tiny bit of this fluid, less than a millionth of a millemetre, and a reaction happens inside the microneedle that researchers can detect using an optical sensor.

It’s a quick and easy way for researchers to determine the concentration of antibiotics in a patient.

“This is probably one of the smallest probe volumes ever recorded for a medically relevant analysis,” said Urs Hafeli, associate professor in UBC’s faculty of pharmaceutical sciences.

The new microneedle monitoring system, which some consider the future of drug delivery, will be able to provide a painless, safe and easy injection in one device.

“Vaccinations, insulin delivery, all these things that regularly use hypodermic needles and cause a lot of populations pain, not just kids, that could change very fast,” Ranamukhaarachchi said.

And due to the nature of the device being minimally invasive and not needing trained professionals to do the injection, researchers said it would open up opportunities for self-administration.

“Imagine getting your vaccine into a small packet with these devices and shipped out to you by mail, so you don’t have to go to a clinic to get your flu shot… that’s the potential of the microneedle devices we’re developing right now,” Ranamukhaarachchi said.

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