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.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
  • 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.

What's next?

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.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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