Freaky Expanding Pill Stays in Your Gut for Days to Deliver Drugs

By George Dvorsky on at

The problem with pills is that you have to take them on a regular basis. An innovative new pop-up capsule solves this problem by staying in the stomach for days, where it slowly releases medication over the course of an entire treatment.

This “ultra long-acting oral drug delivery” system was developed by researchers at MIT and healthcare firm Lyndra, and it’s changing the way we think about pills. After swallowing, the capsule unfurls into a star-like shape; a configuration that prevents it from entering the digestive tract, while still allowing food to pass. Then, for the next seven to 10 days, it stays in the stomach, slowly releasing medication. The star eventually breaks down, allowing it to safely pass through the intestines.

“This technology promises to rewrite the definition of ultra-long acting oral therapies.”

In a new study published in Science Translational Medicine, the capsules were shown to work in Yorkshire pigs weighing between 77 and 100 pounds (pigs have a similar digestive system to humans). Tests showed that the capsule delivered doses of medication for up to 10 days. In current form, it’s ideal for the daily release of 20 to 50 milligrams of a given drug. More tests still need to be done to prove safety and efficacy, but if things continue to go well, clinical trials for humans may not be too far off.

“This technology promises to rewrite the definition of ultra-long acting oral therapies,” noted study co-author Robert Langer in a statement. Conventional extended release capsules last for up to 12 to 24 hours, but the new pill pushes this timeline out to more than a week. Made from polymer materials, the capsule is capable of withstanding powerful digestive forces within the gut, allowing it to stay there for up to two weeks.

Langer’s team developed the pill after a suggestion from Bill Gates, who envisioned a long-lasting oral pill that could deliver a full course of treatment. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped to fund some of the research, and on its suggestion that the pill be initially designed to fight malaria, the prototype was loaded with an anti-parasitic drug called ivermectin.

This ultra long-lasting capsule solves a number of problems, not least of which the non-compliance issue.

“People around the world depend on medications that require taking a pill every single day or even multiple times a day,” noted Amy Schulman, a co-founder of Lyndra. “That approximately 50% of patients in the developed world do not take their medicines as prescribed, a statistic that is even more challenging in the developing world, has a demonstrable effect on healthcare outcomes and a cost estimates to the US healthcare system alone of over $100 billion [£80 bn] annually.”

As noted by Schulman, this pill will be particularly helpful in the developing world, and for those who have difficulty, for whatever reason, taking drugs as prescribed, including patients with hypertension, diabetes, neurological disorders, and opioid addiction. [Science Translational Medicine]