The quest to develop the next miracle pill commands the biggest bucks and the most attention in biotech. But out of the spotlight, there’s growing interest in finding better ways to deliver existing drugs into the body.
Academic researchers and startups are working on new technologies that sound fantastical: Microbubbles. Pills shaped like donuts and pyramids. Devices that could “turn on” drugs, like a TV remote, by flashing beams of light. Tiny chips that might be able to stay in your body for as long as 16 years.
We’ve rounded up some of the most intriguing ideas in the field of drug delivery. Here’s just a sampling of those efforts:
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An expanding ring
The problem: Stomach drugs that are supposed to be long-acting get flushed out too quickly.
Potential solution: A swallowable pill, tested in pigs, unfolds into a ring when it reaches the stomach, allowing it to dispense medication for longer than a week.
Who’s working on it: Lyndra, a Cambridge biotech startup
The problem: Some patients need drugs dispensed in different amounts, at different speeds, or to different regions.
Potential solution: A 3-D printing technology, tested in vitro, could customize dosages with unusually shaped pills or designs that pack multiple drugs into one pill.
Who’s working on it: Researchers at University College London’s School of Pharmacy
The problem: Pills can be forgotten, misplaced, stolen, sold on the black market, or gobbled up by kids.
Potential solution: A device implanted under the skin, tested in patients with opioid addiction, dispenses medication for six months.
Who’s working on it: Titan Pharmaceuticals, a San Francisco specialty pharma company
The problem: Drugs for neurological disorders often have terrible side effects.
Potential solution: A remote-controlled device, tested in mice, would be implanted in the brain to precisely deliver drugs to specific regions of the brain that need it, bypassing regions that don’t.
Who’s working on it: Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis; University of Colorado, Boulder; and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The problem: Medical professionals aren’t always around.
Potential solution: An experimental microneedle patch, tested in patients, would deliver a flu vaccine without the need for needles or trained technicians.
Who’s working on it: Researchers at Osaka University in Japan
The problem: It can be hard to get drugs into a cell.
Potential solution: An experimental device, tested in mice, squeezes cells like a sponge, opening up tiny pores in the cell’s exterior membrane through which foreign molecules can flow.
Who’s working on it: SQZ Biotech, a Boston startup
The problem: Testing one oncology drug at a time on a tumor takes too long and can have toxic effects.
Potential solution: A tiny device, being tested in breast cancer patients, could be implanted into a tumor to dispense small doses of up to 30 different drugs at a time.
Who’s working on it: Researchers at MIT
Many of the new technologies are still being fine-tuned in academic labs or tested in animals. But money is flowing in, particularly for concepts that are closer to market. Last year, investment in drug-delivery companies exceeded $250 million, according to the financial information firm Dow Jones. And the worldwide market for drug-delivery technologies is expected to exceed $150 billion this year, according to the London research firm Visiongain.
Big Pharma is taking notice, too: Roche this week partnered with startup SQZ Biotech to find new uses for technology the startup developed to push drugs into cells. Teva Pharmaceuticals earlier this year inked its own partnership with drug delivery company Microchips Biotech. And Allergan last year acquired the drug-delivery technology of another startup, TARIS Biomedical.
The reason for all this interest? There’s a lot that isn’t working with today’s drug-delivery systems.
Injections can be painful and inconvenient. Steroids and chemotherapy can have side effects. Daily pills are easily abused or difficult to remember to take, particularly for patients with cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia.
And then there’s the issue of targeting. Sometimes drugs can’t penetrate the thick membranes of the organs they’re trying to reach; other times they act on the wrong places, needlessly impairing cognition or causing liver or kidney damage.
The field, in short, seems ripe for revolution. But entrepreneurs entering the market also face risks. Drug-delivery systems are quicker to bring to market than traditional pharmaceuticals — but don’t make as much money. Valuations stay modest. Very few drug-delivery companies, among them BIND Therapeutics and Cerulean Pharma, have gone public.
And new drug-delivery technologies could pose risks to patients. Nanomaterials have been heralded for their potential in delivering drugs to spinal cord injuries and tumors, but a review published this year called for further investigation of the material’s potential toxic effects. And while 3-D printing has sparked excitement about the potential for patients to get their pills in the shape that works best for them, a study published last year found that changes in the size and shape of pills can lead to patients skipping doses.