A wirelessly operated microchip that delivers drugs to the bloodstream has been successfully tested on patients for the first time.
Researchers believe the wafer-thin, 1.3 centimetre-long device could be commercially available and taking the place of regular injections in five years.
An early version of the implant was used to deliver medication to seven women aged 65 to 70 who suffer from the brittle bone disease osteoporosis.
The programmable device, inserted just below the waistline, stored 20 doses of the drug teriparatide in pinprick-size reservoirs.
A computer wirelessly linked to the implant ensured the drug was released from each reservoir at the right time. Follow-up tests showed that it was just as effective as daily injections.
The treatment improved bone formation and reduced the risk of fracture.
Future chips could contain a range of different drugs and be operated from far away, ushering in a new era of telemedicine, according to the researchers.
Professor Robert Langer, one of the implant’s designers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, US, said: “You could literally have a pharmacy on a chip. You can do remote control delivery, you can do pulsatile drug delivery, and you can deliver multiple drugs.”
The scientists have set up a company, MicroCHIPS Inc, to develop the technology.
Details of the proof-of-concept trial results were presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, Canada. They were also reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
The researchers expect a commercial version of the device to be available in around five years.
Compliance is a major problem with self-administered injections, especially in older populations.
The inconvenience or physical difficulty involved, or basic fear of the needle, may mean that patients miss essential treatment.
Dr Robert Farra, president of MicroCHIPS, said: “These data validate the microchip approach to multi-year drug delivery without the need for frequent injections, which can improve the management of many chronic diseases like osteoporosis, where adherence to therapy is a significant problem.
“We look forward to making further progress to advance our first device toward regulatory approvals.”