New ‘robotic’ pill more effective than painful injections for osteoporosis patients

CHICAGO — An edible robotic pill could soon become an alternative to the painful daily injections for people who suffer from chronic conditions such as osteoporosis, a new study suggests. The groundbreaking pill travels undamaged through the body until it releases a balloon within the intestines. The balloon then injects the intestinal walls with microneedles that painlessly deliver the medication.

Scientists developed and tested this advanced “auto-injector” and found that its performance matches or even surpasses that of regular injections of the same medication. The promising results of this study, conducted by California’s Rani Therapeutics, provide optimism for those living with chronic diseases who currently rely on frequent, uncomfortable injections.

In the initial phase of the study, the researchers assessed the safety, tolerability, and movement of the robotic pill, referred to as RT-102, in 39 healthy women. The pill carries a dose of the drug teriparatide, a synthetic version of the human parathyroid hormone. Under the brand name Forteo, teriparatide has been used as a daily injectable medication for osteoporosis patients to help rebuild brittle bones for years.

“We believe this study provides the first clinical evidence of safe and successful delivery of the osteoporosis drug teriparatide through an oral robotic pill,” says Dr. Arvinder Dhalla, who leads Clinical Development at Rani Therapeutics, in a media release. “Data from this study are very encouraging and should give hope to those suffering from chronic conditions that require painful injections, like osteoporosis, that an oral alternative could be on the way.”

Man holding a pill or medication in his hand
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Osteoporosis is a condition that gradually weakens bones over time, making them increasingly fragile and prone to fractures. It’s often diagnosed only after a fall or sudden impact results in a bone fracture.

The study divided the participants into three groups. Two groups received either a low or high dosage of the drug through the robotic pill, while the third group received the standard teriparatide injection. The pill passes unscathed through the stomach, then releases a self-inflating balloon in the intestine. This balloon houses a micro-syringe which injects a drug-laden microneedle into the intestinal wall. The needle dissolves quickly, the balloon deflates, and both are safely expelled from the body.

The researchers used X-ray imaging to monitor the progress of the robotic pills through the body and measured drug concentrations in blood samples taken over a six-hour period. The study found that the drug’s bioavailability – its absorption and utilization by the body – was comparable to or even better than that of the injections.

“This breakthrough technology of converting injections into oral pills is a significant step forward towards ending the burden of painful injections for millions of patients suffering from chronic diseases,” adds Dr. Dhalla.

The study was presented at the hormones and technology news conference at ENDO 2023 – the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois.

Remote control pills could be the next big thing in medicine

In 2022, scientists revealed a similar drug delivery system which would allow patients to actually time when a pill releases their next dosage.

Researchers from Chalmers University of Technology say their invention could lead to electronic capsules and drug implants which rely on a signal to tell them when it’s time to distribute more medicine. The new substance is a polymer surface which changes state using an electrical pulse. This shifts the material from capturing biomolecules to releasing them. Researchers note that a polymer is a chemical compound consisting of long chains of repeated smaller units. Common plastics are a type of polymer.

Do electronic pills already exist?

Although they may not use an electronic signal, the idea of a time-delayed pill is not new. Currently, there are materials which change their state when the chemical environment around them changes. For example, there are tablets which release medication when the pH balance in a person’s body changes — a common occurrence in the gastrointestinal tract. However, most of the body’s other tissues don’t experience changes in their chemical makeup.

“Being able to control the release and uptake of proteins in the body with minimal surgical interventions and without needle injections is, we believe, a unique and useful property. The development of electronic implants is only one of several conceivable applications that are many years into the future. Research that helps us to link electronics with biology at a molecular level is an important piece of the puzzle in such a direction,” the study authors explained in a university release.

South West News Service writer James Gamble contributed to this report.

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