MIT chip may someday replace repeated immunizations

By Kayla Reeves

There might be a sigh of relief coming from doctors and patients in the next few years.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing a microchip that could eventually take the place of required daily medical injections for people with chronic diseases.

The chip has 20 tiny reservoirs that hold a prescribed drug and is programmed to release a dose into the body whenever the patient needs it up to once daily for 20 days.

Doctors can reprogram the chip with a remote from outside the body in case the dosage needs to be changed.

The first successful test of this chip in a human was announced last Thursday. The MIT researchers tested the chip on a group of eight women, ages 65 to 70, and found there were no foreseeable side effects. The subjects did not have discomfort and the doses were accurate.

The chip is less than 2 inches long and is implanted under the skin in a regular doctor’s office using a local anesthetic.

It is not the first invention of its kind, but it is supposedly more reliable than previous under-skin pumps since it proved equally as effective as daily injections, Michael Cima, professor of engineering at MIT, said.

Diabetics, the most obvious candidates for this treatment, could not use the device to replace insulin injections, because insulin molecules are not small enough to fit into the chip. However, they could potentially keep a medicine in the chip for emergencies, if they install a sensor to detect low blood sugar, Cima said.

Implanted treatments sometimes give people the illusion that their problems are solved, Dr. Lauren Barron, lecturer in medical humanities at Baylor, said.

“But that’s not the case,” she said. “In some cases, you need more vigilance to make sure it’s working properly.”

Barron also said the needles people usually use for the daily injections they give themselves are so small that the shots are not nearly as onerous as they used to be.

Dr. Sharon Stern, medical director at Baylor’s health clinic, believes there could be a problem with the medicines being stored in a chip inside the body because “most medicines are kept at a considerably lower temperature to increase shelf life.”

Stern also said it will take years of testing for scientists to determine whether there are negative side effects or major risks.

“Biomedical engineering is fascinating and may reveal the future of medicine,” she said. “However, scientists are cautious and repeat studies many times in order to make sure that all devices are safe and effective.”

There could be other complications, like the inability for patients to have an MRI because of the metal in their body, Barron said.

Also, infections or allergic reactions could be an issue.

“If you have a bad reaction to a pill, we can just discontinue it,” she said. “If it’s implanted in your skin, it’s harder.”

Barron also said absorption of drugs can vary based on a person’s body composition, and that physical things like “bumping around on a tractor in a field” could affect how well the chip works.

“It’s a brilliant idea, and we’ve had success with implanted things like pacemakers and insulin pumps, but it wouldn’t erase the person’s need to be aware and take care of themselves in other ways,” Barron said. “Lifestyle changes can be powerful for treating many medical problems.”