No one likes getting a shot. Hypodermic needles hurt. A quarter of adults and half of children fear shots—and as many as 8% of people report avoiding vaccines to sidestep the pain. For others, needles, while necessary, carry real medical risk. People with diabetes can get infections from routinely checking blood or injecting insulin, and ongoing pricks can ravage their skin.
New research out of Rutgers University proposes a needle that’s far more humane—and it’s inspired by some of the shrewdest animals in nature. It’s a patch full of microscopic needles dubbed “microneedles.” Place it onto your skin, and it pokes into your arm. The needles are barbed, like the stinger of a honeybee or the hooking appendages of a parasite. So once they pierce the skin, they can anchor in to stay put for as long as the test or task requires. And since the needles are hollow, they can deliver drugs or take blood, just like larger needles, without causing any pain.
The needles were produced through a process the researchers call “4D printing.” Basically, the needles are 3D-printed with polymers, but the core structure is a programmable material that reshapes itself, like a piece of self-folding origami, after the printing process is over (MIT has experimented with this approach to materials quite a bit in the past). It’s this folding that creates the rounded hooks. The microneedles can stay affixed within one’s skin 18 times better than any previously researched microneedle, which makes them more reliable for drug delivery, and opens the possibility that a patch could track antibodies, changes in your DNA, or all sorts of other things we might want to sense in our biology. In testing, the researchers showed the patch was able to deliver drugs over the course of a full, 24-hour day.
So will these needles take over medicine? Professor Howon Lee, who led the research, has filed a patent on his technology but cannot speak to how long it would take to be commercialized. But his work is part of a larger push to revolutionize hypodermic needle with microneedles, thanks to technology and design coming together to prove an age-old idea—a revolution Lee believes is coming in “perhaps [the] next decade.”
Before the 1990s, when microneedle research began in earnest, scientists had hypothesized for decades that microscopic needles would one day take blood or deliver drugs without pain. Thirty years ago, these theories suddenly became plausible, thanks to the rise of microchip manufacturing, when working with materials and structures at the nanometer level became a real possibility.
Today, there are countless transdermal patches on the market that are used to deliver various drugs and herbs through your skin, but most are designed without needles, with chemicals that simply seep into your body (this is less efficient and reliable than microneedles). 3M has two patches in early testing that can deliver drugs and vaccines. Other companies are working on simpler microneedle patches that make tiny holes in your arm without delivering medicine on their own, meaning you stick the patch on and immediately pull it off—then you cover the prepped skin with a traditional skin patch to deliver the medicine more efficiently. Other research is looking at how microneedles could work better across the board, so you have ideas like the barbed approach detailed above, or a system developed last year, which uses magnesium to actively burst microneedle “payloads” into your skin, powered by hydrogen bubbles. All of these alternatives are in various states of development, but they point to a significant shift in the experience of getting a shot.
Alternatives to the scary hypodermic needle are just beginning to come to fruition, and they’re getting better at a rapid pace. Now if the world of science could just do something about people’s irrational fear of vaccines, we’d really have something.