Taking a pill is an easy and effective way to deliver medicine, but only short term. The stomach processes pills the same way it gets rid of everything else you eat, so you need to keep popping pills at least once a day. That makes long-term medication difficult. People forget to take their pill, or they give up. The problem of non-adherence could cost up to $100 billion a year in the U.S. alone.
Researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT have managed to design a pill that could stay in the stomach for up to a month. This has the potential to shake medication in many fields, but may have the biggest impact on malaria.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for people to take their medications over a sustained period of time,” study co-author Giovanni Traverso said in a press release. “When patients have to remember to take a drug every day or multiple times a day, we start to see less and less adherence to the regimen. Being able to swallow a capsule once a week or once a month could change the way we think about delivering medications.”
Slow-releasing the drugs may have another side-effect. Or rather, a lack of side-effects. By evening out the dosage, you avoid the spikes in concentration caused by taking a daily pill. It’s possible, believe the researchers, that this could also make drugs more effective. It could certainly lead to drugs designed for slow-release, and the constant, predictable drug levels that it brings.
The method is at once clever and simple. The patient takes a pill the size of a fish-oil capsule, and when it reaches the stomach, it unfurls into a star shape which is too big to fit through the pylorus, the stomach’s exit door. “The pylorus is about 2 centimeters in diameter so we designed our system to be 4 centimeters when it opens,” says Traverso. The drug itself–in this case the anti-parasite drug ivermectin–is infused into polymers so that it can slowly disperse.
So far the team has managed a two-week diffusion, but is working on increasing that to a month.
Ivermectin is a neat drug, too. It can have some pretty nasty side-effects of its own (including red eyes, dry skin, and burning skin) but it works against several parasites, and makes human blood poisonous to mosquitoes. If a mosquito bites you when your blood is carrying ivermectin, it will die. This helps to slow the spread of the insect.
The possibilities for this pill are many. The technology could also be used to treat psychiatric disease, heart disease, and renal disease, among others. It might not sound like much, but if you have ever been on long-term medication, or been close to somebody who has, you’ll know what a big difference this simple invention could make to people’s everyday lives.