By Christopher Sirota, CPCU
Key Takeaway: What if people could self-inoculate? Researchers are developing patches that could potentially efficiently deliver various drugs such as vaccines without hypodermic pain.
Are you or someone you know afraid of hypodermic needles? Help may be here soon in the form of a relatively painless type of transdermal patch.
Leveraging the human body’s largest organ as a conduit for remedies is apparently not very new since--you might recall--the Egyptian 16th century BCE medical scroll known as the Ebers Papyrus in fact describes numerous health remedies that can be applied to the skin to treat non-skin specific conditions, according to a study published in the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The scroll reportedly suggests applying frankincense to the skin to relieve headaches, for example.
Salves and ointments, often kept in place by cloth or paper, have reportedly been used throughout history to treat systemic health issues; a more modern and familiar use would be the nicotine and fentanyl patches. But, according to NIH, the adhesive-type patches are limited in use, partly, by the size of the molecules of the drug needed and whether they can penetrate the skin into the blood plasma.
Big Solution: Think Very, Very Small
To deliver other types of drugs via a patch, actual piercing of the top layer of skin is reportedly needed, hence the interest in using many very very small needles that contain the needed drug; enter the concept of microneedles. This ScienceDirect article provides diagrams that compare the size of the microneedles to larger human hair follicles; it also diagrams why they do not cause pain because they never reach nerve endings, unlike much longer hypodermic needles. Microneedles are not actually very new: back in 2009, another NIH paper explained the potential of using so-called microneedles embedded in a patch to deliver vaccines. However, the market has reportedly so far only seen microneedle use in so-called dermarollers for use in treating skin conditions such as acne and scars.
Now, NPR reports that the pandemic may have given new motivation to market microneedle patches to facilitate drug delivery such as vaccines.
According to the article, partly thanks to technology used to make micron-sized structures for silicon chips, biotech researchers are again trying to create microneedle patches that, in the future, might allow people to self-administer a vaccine. Furthermore, microneedle technology may allow for safe storage at varied temperatures and the ability to delay doses--one design being tested has the microneedles dissolving at different rates which could alleviate the need for a second patch for a second dose; such a system obviously may also prevent people from forgetting or neglecting to obtain a second dose. The article highlights that a microneedle patch reportedly feels like Velcro being pressed onto your skin, so little to no discomfort is anticipated.
Nano Magazine adds that a microneedle patch is also being tested to deliver antibiotics to combat a potentially lethal MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) skin infections.
Of note, the World Economic Forum (WEF) considered microneedles to be one of its top ten emerging technologies of 2020. A related WEF article also notes that microneedles may also help to treat certain eye diseases.