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Swallowing this needle-studded pill could be good for you

Researchers develop a pill that could be swallowed to deliver drugs directly into our digestive tracts via tiny needles. And that's better how?

A better drug delivery system? That's a lot to swallow. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

If needles make you all woozy, you'll be particularly interested in a new invention out of MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital. It's a pill-like capsule that you swallow so it can stab into your stomach lining with tiny needles and deliver its payload before being passed out of your digestive tract in about a week's time.

There. Isn't that better? No, I didn't think so either.

But the folks at MIT and Mass Gen do. Not only because the small capsule eliminates the need for injections, but because it might be more effective at delivering medicines than either injections or regular pills. In addition, the capsule would allow doctors to deliver pill forms of certain drugs that previously couldn't be taken orally due to the effects of stomach acid on absorption.

In tests on pigs, the pill delivered insulin more effectively than an injection, according to a report about the research which appears in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

The capsule itself -- which can be filled with a variety of different drugs -- measures a centimeter in diameter (about four-tenths of an inch) and is 2 centimeters long (about three-quarters of an inch). It's made from acrylic coated with hollow stainless steel needles that measure about 5 millimeters long (about one-fifth of an inch).

So, um, what about those needles? And the swallowing thing? And the passing-out-of-our-digestive-tract thing?

Well, swallowing the capsule won't be a problem because it has a special pH-sensitive coating that won't dissolve until it gets where it needs to be in our digestive tracts. And, according to the MIT report: "Previous studies of accidental ingestion of sharp objects in human patients have suggested that it could be safe to swallow a capsule coated with short needles. Because there are no pain receptors in the GI tract, patients would not feel any pain from the drug injection."

Well, I sure am glad I wasn't part of those "previous studies."

So, what's next?

"The team now plans to modify the capsule so that peristalsis, or contractions of the digestive tract, would slowly squeeze the drug out of the capsule as it travels through the tract," says MIT. "They are also working on capsules with needles made of degradable polymers and sugar that would break off and become embedded in the gut lining, where they would slowly disintegrate and release the drug. This would further minimize any safety concern."

Hmm, I thought there weren't any safety concerns. For now, I think I'll stick with a needle for my next flu shot.