“Drugs don’t work if people don’t take them!” These were the words of former Surgeon General of the United States, Charles E. Coop. It is also the truth, and it makes sense. According to the World Health Organisation, a shocking 50% of people do not take their medication as prescribed. This could be because people forget, they fear the side effects, or they simply don’t have the resources to pay for the treatment. The consequences of non-compliance are a prolonged period of infectiousness, drug resistance, and even death.
I work in the ’gastrointestinal delivery subgroup’ of Professor Robert Langer’s MIT lab. Our team is developing technologies that can replace the frequent dosing regimens that make it hard for patients to take their medication. Our strategy is to make devices that stay in your stomach for an extended period of time while they deliver the drug.
The stomach is the ideal place to put these devices since it is easy to access; just swallow the device as if it were food. Its stretchy walls mean the stomach can also accommodate large objects, such as gastric balloons for weight loss. On the other hand, the stomach is a harsh environment, both chemically and mechanically, for any devices to stick around in.
My colleagues and postdoctoral mentors have recently published a paper in Science Translational Medicine. Their work describes a capsule that can be swallowed and unfolds into a star shape once it reaches the stomach. The arms of the star are made of a polymer that contains drug molecules that are released over time. Due to its expandable nature, the star does not pass through the stomach until the course of drug delivery is complete. At this point, the star is triggered to break into small pieces and passes out of the body.
This project has led to the creation of Lyndra, a company which is using the star-shaped technology to treat malaria, HIV, diabetes, and neuropsychiatric disorders.
As a student at the Langer Lab, I remember talking to Professor Langer and my subgroup leader, Dr Giovanni Traverso, about the star system more than a year ago. I was fascinated by how an interdisciplinary team of chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, chemists, materials scientists, and physicians had come together and created a technology to tackle one of the biggest problems in healthcare. I joined the group so that I too could learn how to create such technologies and collaborate with a diverse team, translating ideas from the laboratory to clinical use.
My project focuses on developing stomach-based devices that are able hold greater quantities of drugs than the star system can. While the star device can hold less than 500 milligrams of drug, my works aims to develop larger devices to enable treatment of diseases that require much more drug, such as tuberculosis (TB). TB is currently the world’s biggest killer when it comes to infectious diseases.
As a bioengineer, I am drawn to global health projects and enjoy using my engineering background to help patients, especially where resources are limited. As part of my work, I also have the opportunity to engage with health care workers and tuberculosis patients in India. There, I try to obtain feedback which helps influence future designs of my drug delivery devices. It’s not easy to design the perfect device given the many constraints, but I am excited to tackle this challenge. More constraints require innovative solutions and ultimately make me a better engineer!