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Could electronically controlled drugs reduce side effects?

Researchers say they can zap implants with electrical currents to release specific amounts of medication to targeted areas of the body.

In separate work out of Purdue, researchers are developing microneedle patches to deliver drugs.
Purdue University

It should go without saying that, when it comes to drugs -- legal or otherwise -- dose matters. Take too little and a drug can be ineffective; take too much and it can be lethal.

For years, researchers around the world have been working to build more targeted drug delivery systems that allow for more precise dosing tailored to a specific patient's specific needs. The hope is to avoid negative side effects (death among them) altogether.

Reporting in the journal ACS Nano, researchers led by Dr. Xinyan Tracy Cui at the University of Pittsburgh say their new approach allows them to electronically control the release of very specific amounts of drugs to certain parts of the body. To do this, they incorporated extremely thin nanosheets of graphene oxide that were loaded with the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone into a polymer scaffold that conducts electricity. By zapping the nanosheets with an electric current, they were able to release the drug -- using the thickness of the sheets to control how much drug was being carried, and the number and magnitude of zaps to control how much of the drug was released.

Smart drug delivery systems could enable far more specific dosing than is possible today. American Chemical Society

The researchers are hopeful that, ultimately, drug-carrying nanosheets could be implanted into a patient and controlled electronically to minimize human error and reduce side effects. "The high level of temporal control and dosage flexibility provided by the electrically controlled GO nanocomposite drug delivery platform make it an exciting candidate for on-demand drug delivery," they write.

And at least in their in vitro cell culture experiments, the researchers found that the film leached no toxic byproducts during electrical stimulation, while the drug itself retained its bioactivity.

The approach still needs tweaking and extensive clinical study before it's ready for prime time, but it could ultimately prove helpful for a wide range of conditions where people need meds to manage chronic issues such as diabetes, epilepsy, pain, and so on.