What does the leopard tortoise—a dome-shelled reptile indigenous to the African savannah—have to do with diabetes? New research co-authored by investigators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) draws on the unique structure of that animal’s anatomy to inform a potentially groundbreaking way to deliver critical insulin to diabetes patients.
The new delivery system would overcome anatomical obstacles—including the corrosive digestive trip into the bloodstream—that currently limit insulin intake to the inconvenient injection method. The research team, co-led by senior author Giovanni Traverso, MB, BChir, PhD, a gasteroenterologist at BWH, was led to the leopard tortoise for engineering inspiration after first trying other methods to deliver a needle-shaped dose by pill. “We thought at first we might borrow from the Weeble Wobble,” Dr. Traverso told Wired. But the round-bottomed children’s toys were designed to be pushed over, they realized, “and we wanted something that once it righted itself would stay that way.”
The unique geometry of the tortoise’s shell provided a model for shell-shaped capsules assembled from heavy steel at bottom with lighter plastic on top: a roly-poly shape that rights itself to be needle-down. A loaded spring at the top of the pill becomes activated by gastric juice when swallowed, plunging the insulin across the stomach lining. The prototype, created in collaboration with Novo Nordisk, is expected to be texted in human subjects over the next two-to-three years—potentially transforming care for patients with diabetes and other conditions such as obesity and growth disorders.
Image via Wired.