UBC microneedles could be used for blood draws, vaccine delivery

Are you scared to go to the doctor because you hate needles? New UBC technology may ensure that you never have to see a needle again.

Researchers at UBC Pharmaceutical Sciences and Engineering, in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, have developed a painless, minimally invasive and inexpensive microneedle drug monitoring system that could potentially replace needles used for blood draws and vaccines.

The microneedle monitoring system was developed out of a research collaboration between Urs Hafeli, associate professor in UBC’s faculty of pharmaceutical sciences, Boris Stoeber, professor in UBC’s faculty of applied sciences, PhD student Sahan Ranamukhaarachchi, previous PhD student Iman Mansoor and researchers in the Paul Scherrer Institute.

“The technology of microneedles has been around for some time now, but the microneedle drug monitoring system is a new idea. Microneedles are actually less than a millimetre in length and they can be used equally effectively as hypodermic needles for applications such as vaccinations and blood draws. We target skin layers with microneedles and the main benefit of that for patients is that it’s pain-free and there’s absolutely no bleeding or anything associated with that,” said Ranamukhaarachchi, a Vanier scholar in UBC’s faculties of applied science and pharmaceutical sciences.

Ranamukhaarachchi explained that microneedles work by going through the outermost layer of your skin, called the stratum corneum, a 10 to 40 micrometre layer of dead cells that provides mechanical strength and is a protective shield against external factors. The needles can then access tissue under the layer and deliver a variety of drugs.

“In collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute, we were able to develop the microneedle device and combine it with sensing elements so we can extract a little bit from the skin and actually detect what’s in there. So in terms of drug monitoring systems, this can potentially eliminate the need for blood draws. We can extract less than a millionth of a milliliter of fluid, which is what a typical blood draw is, and monitor drug levels equally effectively in lab conditions.” said Ranamukhaarachchi.

At the moment the research team at UBC is focusing on two venues for the microneedle monitoring system — drug delivery and drug monitoring. Looking ahead, the team is also exploring other applications for microneedles, such as the delivery of anaesthetics in dentistry. In addition to allowing patients who are needle phobic to receive treatment, for patients receiving cosmetic treatment such as botox, microneedle technology could be used in areas where the skin is thinner and closer to bones, and therefore the likelihood of bleeding or pain is higher.

The microneedle technology is being commercialized by Microdermics Inc., a UBC offshoot company started by Stoeber, Hafeli and Ranamukhaarachchi, could potentially be self-administrable, so you don’t actually need to go to a clinic or have a trained professional administer the injection.

“Some day we envision that we could also mail out some of the vaccines right to your home and you can just use the device yourself. So it would be almost like using an insulin pen, but without the pain or bleeding.” added Ranamukhaarachchi.

A previous version of this piece said that the stratum corneum was 10-20 millimetres thick. The stratum corneum is actually 10-40 micrometres thick. The Ubyssey regrets this error.