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New 'swallowable needles' could deliver insulin as a pill
Diabetics have to endure constant injections on a daily basis, but this new device could make staying alive easier.
- Insulin breaks down in the stomach, so diabetics haven't had the option of taking insulin in a pill.
- A new device whose design is inspired by tortoises can be swallowed and inject diabetics with insulin from the inside.
- Though it's still a prototype, the device is an exciting development for delivering insulin and other drugs.
No matter the delivery mechanism, consistently getting a dose of insulin is inconvenient, complicated, and non-negotiable. The unfortunate nature of insulin is that it must enter the bloodstream—if one were to swallow insulin as a pill, for instance, the stomach's enzymes would break the compound down, rendering it useless. So, diabetics must resort to constant injections. However, every new advancement in insulin administration technology has the potential to vastly improve the onerous task of staying alive for a diabetic. This is why a new paper published in Science is so exciting.
A team of researchers has developed a prototype for what amounts to insulin in a pill. But, since insulin can't persist in the stomach, the new device is more accurately described as a swallowable needle. That may sound terrifying, but their research thus far suggests that it's safe, effective, and painless. SOMA—or the self-orienting millimeter-scale applicator—is a tiny device about 1.7 mm tall. When swallowed, it flips and turns around in the stomach, landing in such a way that a biodegradable needle can be deployed into the stomach lining. Because there aren't that many sharp pain receptors in the stomach, this needle causes no pain. And SOMA is small enough that once it's done its job, it easily passes through the rest of the digestive tract.
How does it work?
Like many well-designed products, SOMA took its inspiration from nature; specifically, the leopard tortoise. Tortoises in general have a big problem: Once they flip onto their backs, they have a lot of trouble getting back upright. Stuck upside down, they're liable to be eaten by predators or cooked in the hot sun. Some tortoises, like the leopard tortoise, have evolved a unique shape that makes orienting themselves easier. Their bottom half is fairly flat, but the top of their shells arches up in a sharp, dome-like shape. This is the same design that SOMA uses—it's shaped like a leopard tortoise's shell or an acorn so that it lands on its bottom, where the needle emerges. Furthermore, the top half of the device is made out of a lightweight, biodegradable polyester, while the bottom half is made of heavier stainless steel, encouraging it to flip in the necessary direction.
A leopard tortoise, whose shell shape inspired the design, and a cross section of the device.
Abramson et al., 2019
To test the device, the researchers fed SOMA to pigs, whose physiology resembles that of humans in many respects. In these trials, the researchers made a needle of biodegradable polymer, with a tip made from insulin. Once injected, the insulin performed as expected, encouraging the cellular uptake of glucose. Since these pigs weren't diabetic, though, this wasn't exactly a pleasant experience for them—they became hypoglycemic, where their blood sugar levels dropped too low. Before you worry too much, the researchers did rescue them with a quick dose of dextrose, bringing their blood sugar back to normal.
While insulin was used for testing purposes and is clearly an exciting use case for this technology, it's not the only drug SOMA could be used for. In theory, any drug that can be cast into a needle tip and administered safely and stably through stomach lining could be used.
While its certainly an innovative technology, it's important to remember that this is just a prototype. How it might work in humans, especially diabetics who must consistently take insulin, is unclear. The repeated internal injections could be unsafe. In addition, the size of the device and the thickness of the stomach lining limit the maximum dosage SOMA can deliver, potentially rendering it ineffective for certain medications. But despite these possible limitations, SOMA's promising prototype trials suggest that a drug-delivery system like it could be put into use in the future.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Got $55 million lying around? If so, you might be able to score a spot aboard the International Space Station starting 2024.
- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
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Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?