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UCalgary researchers move microneedle technology closer to commercialization

With the potential to deliver medicines painlessly, more effectively and with the ability to provide biometrics, microneedle technology has the potential to revolutionize healthcare outcomes.

Microneedles are incredibly short and thin needles, smaller than a human hair, that can penetrate the skin to depths where medicines can be delivered effectively, but are not long enough to touch nerves, making them painless to use.

The challenge for manufacturers has been taking the technology from the laboratory to the commercial space in a way that’s cost-effective and can be mass produced.

A group of UCalgary researchers from the Schulich School of Engineering have developed a new method using already proven commercialized manufacturing technology.

“Lots of people, they’re making microneedles out of polymers—plastics—because they’re easy to make in some respects. They can be easily transcribed to mass production, but they are hard to make, you have to do a lot of design work, and there’s a lot of issues with coating,” said Dr. Colin Dalton, Associate Professor with Electrical and Software Engineering Department at UCalgary.

“A lot of other people are looking at this concept of metal microneedles. That’s what we do because they allow you to use electric fields, you can then do measurements, as well as coat them with drugs.”

Researchers make connection out of connection technology

Dr. Dalton, along with PhD students Thomas Lijnse and Kuri Martinez, Master’s student Kazim Haider, and undergraduates Lisa van de Panne and Catherine Betancourt Lee have developed a new method of creating microneedles at any length, in any form of array, using technology similar to that used to make the connections for computer microchips.

“One of the things I was doing back in 2009 was using these technologies to make hollow microneedles out of silicon, the same thing that makes your silicon chips. There’s lots of problems with that material,” said Dr. Dalton.

“I had a kind of a funny moment one day, that the some of the techniques and the technologies that we use for electronics manufacturing, and realizing that if we adapted that which is used to make iPhones and all sorts of stuff like really big industrial processes, we could potentially make solid microneedles out of that material—which was the time was a gold wire.”

Dr. Dalton said he realized that if the process of making those thin wires was interrupted part way through, then they could create microneedles of any length.

“We didn’t know we could do that. First, we talked with some of the manufacturers a couple of years back, we sent some samples off, we got some little bit of money, did some testing and showed that we could do it,” he said.

“We’ve done insertion tests into pig tissue to show that it works. Now we’ve done the coatings that show that we can do the delivery [of medicine]. We’ve also done the electrical circuits to show that we can do the readings of glucose levels.”

Further trials needed before micro needles can be brought to market

He said that like any medical device, further rigorous testing has to be done before it can be brought to market, but that the progress that has been made has already been recognized beyond academia.

Which isn’t to say it hasn’t been recognized there either. Dr. Lijnse was awarded a second-place prize (out of 88) at a recent microneedles conference for his poster on the process by the attending delegates.

“I think it could be quite a game changer. Obviously, there’s Health Canada as the FDA, we’d have to go to trials, but we’ve got now the big step change, in the last six months, is we’ve shown that this technique is customizable,” Dr. Dalton said.

The team, in a proof of concept, created a custom array of microneedles that spelled out Yahoo! for the Calgary Stampede.

Beyond the delivery of medicines and vaccines, Dr. Dalton said that there are other benefits. Traditional needles require specialized training for health care practitioners to use safely, whereas, with a microneedle patch, anyone could simply apply the patch to their skin in the same way they might a band-aid.

This offers the potential to deliver medicines to remote communities which may not have a health care practitioner.

It also means, especially in a post-pandemic world where nearly everyone was exposed to needles, that the fear of needles can be avoided.

“The big picture is pain, needle-phobia, and all those kinds of issues that form generally in childhood because people have bad experiences with needle pain. That then develops into full-blown needle-phobia, which has been exacerbated by Covid where people refuse to take medicines.”

“The other one is they cause less damage. They’re very, very small… so they do minimal damage to the skin, and they heal rapidly, they can deliver the right kinds of doses,” Dr. Dalton said.

Direct pain-free medicine gets interest from global companies

An example of this kind of direct dosing means that for patients with arthritis, instead of receiving a traditional inter-muscular injection of a drug, a patch could be placed on the skin on top of a joint that is in pain.

Dr. Dalton said that the ability for microneedle arrays to act as a sensor would offer the opportunity to deliver better health outcomes for patients who require routine testing, like those with diabetes who need blood glucose levels tested regularly.

“If you have seen a continuous blood glucose monitor, this is administered with a very, very big needle. These could be replaced with a patch, which would mean people who have to inject these things, or put these things on pretty much for the rest of their lives, will have less scarification, less pain,” he said.

Currently, he said that there has been interest from major industry groups in the UCalgary technology and that the university is signing agreements with those groups for the technology.

Although Dr. Dalton couldn’t say who those groups are, he did disclose to LWC that they are representatives of global industry from places like the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East.