- London (Reuters) - A silicon microchip
could one day replace painful injections, difficult-to-swallow pills and
foul-tasting medicines. Instead of packing it with data, scientists plan
to load the tiny chip with drugs. It could then be swallowed or implanted
under the skin and programmed to release tiny quantities of drugs at precise
times. It may sound far-fetched but researchers at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology say a "smart tablet or a "pharmacy-on-a-chip could
soon be a reality. "It's a drug delivery system but it could be used
for anything," Dr Robert Langer told Reuters.
- Wide Variety of Uses
- The prototype that he developed with
John Santini and Michael Cima could one day be used to deliver pain relief
or cancer drugs, in medical diagnostic tests, in jewelery to emit scents,
or in any capacity to deliver one or more chemical compounds in specific
amounts at specified times.
- It may even be possible to create a microchip
that could be put in televisions to release scents. Scenes of oceans could
be matched with salt air smells or gardens with floral aromas.
- "This is the kind of prototype that
may one day make those things possible," said Langer, a professor
of chemical and biochemical engineering at MIT.
- Compounds on Demand
- The device is the first of its kind enabling
the storage of one or more chemicals inside of the microchip with the release
of the compounds on demand. A microprocessor, remote control or biosensors
can be used as a trigger mechanism.
- In a letter published in the science
journal Nature today, the scientists described how they tested a solid-state,
microchip the size of a U.S. 10-cent coin. It had 34 pinprick-sized reservoirs
that could hold 25 nanolitres chemicals in solid, liquid or gel form. A
nanolitre is one thousand-millionth of a litre.
- The researchers said they could reduce
the size of the chip even further, to as tiny as 0.08 inches (two millimeters),
depending on its desired use. There is also the potential for more than
1,000 reservoirs, maybe thousands, if the reservoirs are smaller.
- Opening Up Tiny Wells
- "Envision a container with tiny
little wells. Each well has a drug or chemical and each of those wells
is covered with gold. You can, by remote control or it can be self-contained,
individually remove any of those gold caps." Langer explained.
- "The second you release it, and
it does it immediately, all the contents will come out on demand."
- Another benefit of the chip is that it,s
cheap. Langer and his team are making them in a research lab for about
$20 each, but, if they are produced in larger batches, a chip could cost
just a few dollars, or less.
- It's still to early to predict when the
microchip will be widely available but the researchers already have two
patents pending - a U.S. patent on the fabrication of the microchips and
a foreign one covering all aspects of the technology.
- Langer and his colleagues hope to test
the device in animal studies and eventually with humans. They used gold
and saline as electrode material and a release medium but they are already
working on degradable plastics and other materials.