By Yosef Scher, Science and Technology Editor
Earlier this month, a team of scientists led by Shriya Srinivasan, a research affiliate at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and a junior fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, developed, RoboCap, a novel way to transfer medicine directly into a person’s intestines.
Approximately the size of your daily multivitamin, RoboCap is a drug capsule that enables large proteins, as well as small-molecule drugs, to be effectively absorbed into a person’s digestive tract. According to Srinivasan, the small capsule comprises a “cargo hold,” the area that stores the drug, and a “gelatinous coating that protects tissue from damage and discomfort after swallowing.” This is a revolutionary breakthrough in the pharmaceutical industry since drug manufacturers typically struggle to find ways to overcome the obstacles of “surviving acidic regions in the stomach, digestive enzymes, and above all, the mucus barrier that lines the digestive tract” to deliver drugs effectively. However, using a combination of technology and medicine, RoboCap has demonstrated that these potential roadblocks can be circumvented.
The way RoboCap works is genuinely remarkable. Upon reaching the stomach, the gelatinous coating of the capsule is degraded by the highly acidic gastric juices in the stomach, dissolving RoboCap’s surface. After the pH sensitive-membrane is completely removed, RoboCap is activated by closing one of many electrical circuits found in the capsule, triggered by the change in pH. In order to deliver the drug effectively, RoboCap spins and buries its way through the tough mucus layer of the digestive tract, allowing the drug to be gradually released directly onto the intestinal surface.
After months of development, Srinivasan and her team conducted experiments on pigs that demonstrated the effectiveness and usefulness that this capsule could provide for humanity. Insulin and Vancomycin. “Large protein drugs … that consist of proteins or nucleic acids and are at the moment only injectable,” were placed into RoboCap and administered orally to a group of pigs. Compared to the placebos that acted as controls, “the RoboCap increased the permeability of vancomycin into the tissue by over 20 times compared to the control” and “significantly increased insulin levels in the blood and sharply decreased glucose levels compared to controls.” The researchers also found that the capsule was active in the pig’s intestine for nearly thirty-five minutes, and the capsule passed through all ten of the different pig’s digestive systems without there being “signs of inflammation, infection or damage to the intestinal epithelium.”
Srinivasan and her team want to continue developing RoboCap, increasing its sensitivity to various pH environments so that the capsule can work in multiple areas of the digestive tract. Srinivasan hopes her brilliant innovation will “minimize the number of drugs that don’t make it to market due to poor bioavailability and improve the pharmaceutical industry’s ability to provide viable therapies.” With the prevalence of Type 1 and 2 diabetes increasing by 54% for Americans by 2030, Srinivasan’s breakthrough will definitely aid in providing a feasible and effective option for many people in desperate need of insulin.