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Micro injections: Score 1 for needle-phobes

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have designed a painless patch of "microneedles" that could replace hypodermic needles and even annual flu shots.

I'll admit that I've never understood the fear of needles. Ever since I was little, I thought it was cool that something could go so deep with only a tiny little sting. My mom told me to think of Strawberry Shortcake, and I'd push out my little chin, watch the needle go in, and cheer.

Yet several people in my life, whose anonymity I'll do them the favor of preserving, practically faint at the mere sight of a needle. Score one for the afflicted, because a new "microneedle patch" supposedly takes the sting out of shots.

An array of "microneedles" could administer drugs without so much as a sting. Gary Meek

"It's our goal to get rid of the need for hypodermic needles in many cases and replace them with a patch that can be painlessly and simply applied by a patient," says Mark Prausnitz of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who announced this promising alternative at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington this week. "If you can move to something that's as easy to apply as a Band-Aid, you've now opened the door for people to self-administer their medicine without special training."

The microneedle relies on advances in microfabricating extremely tiny objects. Each needle in this patch is in fact only a few hundred microns long, or about the width of a few strands of human hair. Prausnitz's team, in collaboration with Emory University, administered flu vaccines to mice via both conventional injections and microneedle patches. The resulting antibody levels looked identical; on closer inspection, it turns out that the microneedle patch resulted in an even better immune result.

One potential use for this patch is treating macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. Drugs that treat macular degeneration must be injected directly into the eyeball every month; while I harbor no fear of needles whatsoever, I can think of plenty of ways I'd rather spend my time. And though the microneedle patch would also have to be placed on the eye, it seems like a far less invasive alternative.

The first clinical trial on humans is expected to begin in 2010.