By Will Soutter
Nanotechnology researchers from the University of York are working on a project called the Nanject - a patch which will be applied to the skin to deliver targeted medication without the use of needles. They will be using the patch to deliver targeted cancer drugs, that kill off cancer cells without harming the healthy cells in the rest of the body.
Magnetic nanoparticle fluid, imaged with an optical microscope
The researchers, Atif Syed and Zakareya Hussein, are seeking funding for their project on crowdfunding platform Microryza. They say the money raised will pay for the chemicals and materials they need to start developing prototypes. Much of the background research on the drug delivery mechanism, and using nanoparticles to target cancer cells, has already been completed.
Non-Invasive Nanofilament Drug Delivery
The Nanject patch works by replacing a single syringe with many tiny syringes made of polymer nanofilaments - so small you don't even feel them. They inject the medication through the hair follicles in the skin, where they can get into the bloodstream and travel around the body to wherever they are most needed. Zakareya Hussein commented:
"The hair follicles provide access the fatty subcutaneous layer beneath the skin, which is where many vaccines are normally injected. The subcutaneous layer is essentially a fatty region underneath the skin. Normal injections tend to damage the capillaries, causing internal bleeding - Nanject prevents that, as medicines are absorbed directly into intact capillaries."
This approach completely removes many of the issues with distributing medication, particularly in remote places. Currently, a trained person is required to inject any kind of medication, and taking drugs orally requires much larger doses due to decomposition by stomach acids, and may not work at all.
Using a simple skin patch like the Nanject will allow drugs to be self-administered, making it much easier to get medication to people in need in remote locations or developing countries with little access to professional healthcare. It would also remove the risks of infection associated with reusing improperly sterilized needles.
"Capillaries are very selective about what they actually let into the blood stream, to defend your body from invaders - this natural defense will shield patients from many of the risks associated with traditional injections, such as bacterial infections and other complications, even if the Nanject is accidently left unsterilized!
"The remaining nanoprojections which don't hit the hair follicle on target are so small that they cannot even pierce the skin, making them completely harmless."
The York duo aren't the first to think of this approach - Mark Kendall of Queensland University, Australia, announed a similar concept called Nanopatch at TEDGlobal 2013. Syed and Hussein insist that they have been working on their idea for just as long as Kendall, however, and have developed a completely different approach to developing their nanoscale syringes.
Targeted Nanoparticles for Cancer Treatment
It appears that Syed and and Hussein won't be content with simply creating a revolutionary drug delivery patch. Whilst the patch could eventually be used to deliver any number of different drugs, they are kicking things off by developing a targeted cancer drug to be used with the Nanject.
Targeted chemotherapy has been a popular subject of nanotechnology research for some time. Multiple mechanisms have been developed to achieve this, but Syed and Hussein have opted for one based on superparamagnetic nanoparticles.
The magnetic nanoparticles are coated with antigens, so that as they travel around the bloodstream, they will attach themselves to cancerous cells whenever they encounter them. The patient is then treated in an MRI machine - the oscillations of the high-strength magnetic field cause the nanoparticles to heat up, destroying the cancer cells around them.
Once the magnetic field is switched off, the particles cool back down and are gradually and harmlessly removed from the body.
Left: SEM image of magnetic nanoparticles (light) under a coating (dark). Right: The same magnetic nanoparticles which have been organized into a pattern using a magnetic field.
One of the most interesting and ambitious aspects of this project is the aim to make it the first example of "open nanotechnology" - once developed, the Nanject patch technology will be made available for other research teams and companies to adapt to other types of medication.
It is clear that this device could be used to safely administer many different types of treatment, and making the platform freely available to others, as opposed to forcing other teams to reinvent the wheel, could vastly increase the rate at which the Nanject is adopted for a wide range of applications.
For more information about the project, the latest updates, or to contribute to the funding, visit the Nanject's Microryza page.