Needles are usually seen as a necessary evil, but maybe they don't have to be. Plenty of painless alternatives are in the works, like microneedle patches, a laser-based device that pushes drugs through the skin as microjets of liquid, and a refined hypodermic design based on a mosquito's proboscis. Now, a pain-free jet-injection device has emerged from development limbo with a commercialization deal that should see it soon hit the market.
The device is called PRIME, and it was born out of years of research at MIT. The technology proved successful enough that a company called Portal Instruments was spun out of the university in 2012 to continue working on it. Now Portal has reached a deal with Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda to further develop PRIME and bring it to market.
Rather than jam a sharp metal tube through a patient's skin, PRIME delivers its drug payload painlessly, in the form of a high-pressure stream of liquid. First, a vessel of the desired drug is loaded into the device, which is about the size of an electric razor. These single-use vessels can be potentially loaded up with a range of biologics (drugs made from biological sources like proteins), to deliver hormone treatments, insulin and vaccines.
To administer the shot, a linear electromagnetic actuator squeezes the vessel, which pressurizes the drug and forces it out through a tiny nozzle that's placed against the skin. The drug exits the device at about 200 m (656 ft) per second as a jet of liquid no thicker than a hair, penetrating the skin and tissue. That method is not only painless but fast, delivering a 1 ml dose in half a second, which is much more appealing than the 10 to 20 seconds a hypodermic needle needs to stay under a patient's skin.
Other jet-injection devices are available, but according to its developers PRIME stands out by virtue of an in-built control system that constantly monitors the trajectory of the stream and automatically adjusts the actuator in real-time. That allows the velocity of the injection to be tweaked up to 1,000 times every half-second, delivering the drug to the desired skin depth and location.
Avoiding pain has obvious advantages in itself, but they go beyond those of us who dread the annual flu shot. People managing chronic illnesses like diabetes need to inject themselves regularly – sometimes daily or even more often. The unpleasantness of that means patients don't always stick to their schedule, so making the process painless should increase adherence.
A connected app can also help them stick to the plan, and share information with their doctor. PRIME's needle-less design is also safer, reducing the chances of transmitting diseases or causing injury through discarded or mismanaged needles.
Under the partnership with Takeda, the first drug to be tested with the device is Entyvio, an antibody designed to help patients suffering from ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. After that, the team plans to partner with other pharmaceutical companies to turn PRIME into an accessible "universal injection machine."
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