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Smartphone-controlled microneedles promise precision treatment for chronic diseases

23 January 2024

Scientists have developed a drug patch that can deliver drugs wirelessly to patients. 

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scientists created a new drug delivery system, called the Spatiotemporal On-Demand Patch (SOP), which can receive commands wirelessly from a smartphone or computer to schedule and trigger the release of drugs from individual microneedles. 

The patch's thin, soft platform resembles a plaster and was designed to enhance user comfort and convenience, since wearability is a crucial factor for chronically ill patients.

The research team, led by Juan Song, PhD, Professor of pharmacology at the UNC School of Medicine, and Wubin Bai, PhD, Assistant Professor of applied physical sciences at the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, tested the SOP in a mouse model, using melatonin in the microneedles to improve sleep.

This research, published in the journal Nature Communications, opens the door to researching this wirelessly controlled patch to deliver on-demand treatments for neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer's disease. 

To that end, the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health funded a $25,000 pilot project to test the SOP in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease.

"SOP's ability to enable joint delivery of multiple drugs could address various aspects of Alzheimer's Disease, such as reducing beta-amyloid plaques, mitigating neuroinflammation and enhancing cognitive function," said Bai, a co-senior author.

The patch, which has received a provisional patent, enables highly localised treatment – less than 1mm² – of specific tissues, organs or regions within the body, and drug release can be triggered within 30 seconds in response to an electrical signal. 

Patients could wear more than one patch at a time which would reduce the need for doctors' visits, or even trips to the hospital, for medical attention.

"The beauty of this device is that it can house dozens, if not hundreds, of concentrated drugs and can program their sequential release automatically," said Song, who is a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center. 

"Rapid drug release can be crucial in emergency situations or when immediate therapeutic action is required."

The microneedles are coated with gold, which protects the drugs and surrounding tissues. When a low-voltage electrical stimulus is applied through the patch, the gold coating disintegrates, exposing the drug-loaded microneedles to the skin and initiating the controlled release of the drugs.

"This level of specificity ensures precise and customised drug delivery, catering to the needs of different conditions or specific regions of the body," said Wang. 

"This offers a novel approach to achieving controlled drug release through a combination of materials science and electrical engineering."

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