In brief

Pinching the skin with magnets helps it to absorb drugs such as insulin.

© A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB)

Delivering drugs in a pinch

21 Oct 2020

Using magnets, scientists have developed an innovative pressure-based technique that represents a new frontier in needle-free drug delivery.

Though the world may be eagerly awaiting the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, there’s one tiny snag in vaccine roll-out plans. Approximately 20 percent of the general population suffers from a paralyzing fear of needles known as trypanophobia, potentially derailing vaccine compliance.

But trypanophobia doesn’t just affect vaccination rates. It can also affect treatment adherence—particularly for conditions like diabetes, where daily shots of insulin are needed to manage blood sugar levels. To overcome this barrier, researchers are continuously searching for non-invasive drug delivery strategies. However, many current methods irritate the skin or require specialized equipment, posing further challenges for patients.

Now, an international team of scientists has found an innovative way of getting drugs across the skin: magnets. The team was led by Xiaomeng Wang and David Becker from the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) and Chenjie Xu from the City University of Hong Kong. Wang holds a joint appointment at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), while Becker is also a Senior Principal Investigator at the Skin Research Institute of Singapore (SRIS), a tripartite collaboration involving A*STAR, NTU and Singapore’s National Healthcare Group.

Their unique approach was inspired by traditional Chinese medicinal massage called tui na, which involves applying pressure and herbal remedies to the body. The team sought to mimic the process by using two neodymium magnets to pinch the skin and subsequently apply drugs to the pinched area.

“With the use of magnets, we can control and optimize the pressure and application time to develop a reproducible technique to deliver drugs across the skin,” explained first author Daniel Lio, who did this research as part of his doctoral thesis at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, and is now working at A*STAR's Enterprise Group.

Testing their method on mice, Lio and his colleagues found that with just one minute of 0.28 MPa pressure, they were able to successfully deliver macromolecules and nanoparticles of up to 20,000 daltons and 500 nm, respectively. Further investigation showed that the pressure caused micropores to form on the skin surface, allowing the drugs to pass through.

Applying the technique to insulin delivery, the researchers showed that five minutes of pressure allowed the drug to enter the skin and make its way into the bloodstream, causing a gradual drop in blood sugar within 30 minutes following application. This pressure-based method could thus help diabetics manage their condition without the abrupt drop in blood sugar levels that is sometimes caused by insulin injections and linked to serious complications such as seizure and loss of consciousness.

As exciting as their discovery may be for trypanophobes, there’s still much work to be done before their approach can be applied in the clinic. Moving forward, the researchers are now looking to optimize the method’s parameters across a wider variety of animal models and other kinds of drugs.

To further enhance the patient experience, they are also working on a device that can automatically apply both pressure and the topical drug formulation. “Working with engineers at Nanyang Technological University, we have developed a 3D printable device which can deliver variable levels of pressure up to 45 Newtons without the use of magnets,” said Becker.

The A*STAR affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Skin Research Institute of Singapore (SRIS) and Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB).

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Lio, D.C.S., Chia, R.N., Kwek, M.S.Y., Wiraja, C., Madden, L.E., et al. Temporal pressure enhanced topical drug delivery through micropore formation. Science Advances (6) 22, eaaz6919 (2020) | article

About the Researchers

Xiaomeng Wang obtained her BSc from Beijing Normal University, China, and her PhD from Newcastle University, UK. Following a post-doctoral fellowship at Manchester University, UK, she continued her scientific career at University College London, UK. In 2013, she moved to Singapore where she currently holds a joint appointment as Principal Investigator at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) and Associate Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School.
David Becker obtained his BSc in Biology in 1985 and his PhD in 1988 at University College London. In 1994 he was awarded a Royal Society Research Fellowship and in 2008 was made full Professor at UCL. In 2013 he moved to Singapore to join the newly formed Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. For his translational research he has 30 worldwide patents pending and granted. In 2006 he was a founding scientist of CoDaTherapeutics Inc, (now Ocunexus) to develop Nexagon, a drug which promotes wound healing in skin and the cornea.

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group