New Patch Inspired by Octopus Suckers Could Deliver Drugs Without Needles

Medicine-filled suction cups attached to the inside of the cheek could be an effective alternative to oral tablets or injections, study finds

close-up of octopus tentacles, showing their suckers
Scientists found inspiration in octopus suckers, which can hold onto surfaces underwater, to design a new drug-delivery method that sticks to the inner cheek. CM Dixon / Heritage Images / Getty Images

When delivering medications to patients, one of the most effective methods is direct injection into the bloodstream using a needle. But this can be an uncomfortable experience, especially for kids or adults with a fear of needles. While patients do have the option to take oral pills instead, drugs containing large molecules—such as those for diabetes—are not absorbed effectively this way. 

Now, researchers from China and Switzerland have designed a needle-free alternative: a tiny, drug-filled cup that sticks to the inside of the cheek like an octopus sucker. The device is easily accessible, can be removed at any time and prevents saliva from dissolving the drug, which gets absorbed through the lining of the inner cheek, the team reports in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine

“Oral delivery really is kind of a holy grail,” Arturo Vegas, a chemist at Boston University who was not involved in the patch development, tells Annalisa Merelli of STAT News. “It’s still the preferred form of administration for patients […] which means higher compliance, better outcomes for the patient, less adverse effects overall.”

Usually, delivering drugs through the dense, inner cheek tissue is not very effective, according to a statement. But the suction cup stretches the cheek, creating a larger surface area for the drug to pass through.

the small cheek patch on the tip of a person's finger
Researchers tested the small drug patches on beagles, which have similar inner cheeks to humans. Transire Bio via ETH Zurich

To test the design, the team 3D printed their rubber, 1.1- by 0.6-centimeter suckers. They loaded each with the diabetes drug desmopressin and stuck them inside the cheeks of three beagles, which have a similar inner cheek lining to humans. For comparison, they also delivered the drug to beagles via a pill and via injection. After three hours, the team found that drug plasma concentrations in dogs with the patch were more than 150 times higher than in the dogs that took a tablet.

“We were really impressed by the level of absorption that we would get with such a simple system,” Jean-Christophe Leroux, a co-author of the study and researcher of drug formulation and delivery at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, tells Popular Science’s Jocelyn Solis-Moreira. However, the oral patches were less effective than drugs delivered via injection.

The team further tested the patches by filling them with the drug semaglutide, which has molecules four times larger than desmopressin does, reports Nature’s Miryam Naddaf. After 30 minutes, they found that beagles with the patch had a similar amount of semaglutide absorbed by the bloodstream as those that took a tablet, per the publication. 

Finally, 40 healthy human volunteers self-applied water-filled patches to see how well they would stay on while talking, moving and rinsing their mouths. After 30 minutes, only five of the 40 patches had fallen off, which the study authors write was because of improper placement or manipulation. Most volunteers said they would prefer a patch over injections for daily, weekly and monthly applications. 

Though the patches need further testing to determine how repeated use affects patients, the researchers conclude that their technique is “noninvasive, simple and readily self-applicable by patients,” they write. “Its simplicity and modularity make this technology potentially suitable for administration of a wide range of compounds that are rapidly degraded or poorly absorbed in the GI [gastrointestinal] tract.”

Next, the team wants to bring their suction-cup design to market. They will have to conduct more tests before starting human clinical trials, and they’re currently looking for industry partners and funders.

“We have a prototype and have already patented the technology,” Nevena Paunović, a pharmacist who will lead the effort to sell the product, says in the statement. “Our next step is to manufacture the suction cup in a way that meets current pharmaceutical regulations.”

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