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See the Skin Patch That Could Revolutionize Cancer Treatment and Vaccine Adherence

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently developed a fast-acting skin patch that efficiently delivers medication to attack melanoma cells. It also has potential to revolutionize vaccine administration and treatment, according to its inventors.

The research was presented at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2019 National Meeting and Exposition.

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How Does the Patch Work?

The cutting-edge patch, brought to life by engineering professor Paula T. Hammond, PhD, and graduate student Yanpu He, stands out because of its ability to deliver medication much more quickly than previous devices. In large part, older patches rely on layer-by-layer (LbL) coated microneedles (MN) for transdermal drug delivery, which are much less painful and easier to administer than hypodermal injections. The downside is that these patches require anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes to inject the drug into the skin, which can lead to potential medication noncompliance. 

Dr. Hammond, He and their MIT colleagues devised a way around this problem. They designed a new pH-responsive polymer with two parts. As He explains it, “the first part contains amine groups that are positively charged at the pH at which we make the microneedles but that become neutral at the pH of skin. The second part contains carboxylic acid groups with no charge when the microneedles are made, but which become negatively charged when the patch is applied to the skin.”

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The overall shift in charge (from positive to negative), along with the patch’s unique chemical coating, means it can deliver a therapeutic dose of drugs within a minute of application to the skin. Thus far, researchers have tested the device on mice and human skin samples. It’s produced nine times the immune system response compared to intramuscular and subcutaneous injections.

Why Does This Research Matter?

Advocates for the device believe it can significantly improve treatment and vaccine adherence because it’s as effective as a syringe but much less painful. (Topical ointments are another popular, painless way to administer drugs, but they don’t allow the medication to permeate the entire body.)

With these advantages, micro-needling patches may be the future of drug administration. Dr. Hammond hopes the patches will be used for a variety of vaccines because the technology allows for precise engineering of the necessary proteins.

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What Does The Research Mean for Healthcare Professionals?

While the patches still require administration by a clinician, they can travel without jeopardizing the vaccine itself. Dr. Hammond anticipates that a trial with primates will follow further testing in small animals. Permission for such an undertaking usually takes time, so if all goes as planned, the patches will be available to human patients in three to four years.

“We are using low-cost chemistry and a simple fabrication scheme to transform vaccination,” Hammond explained in a statement. “Ultimately, we want to get a device approved and on the market.”


Skin patch could painlessly deliver vaccines, cancer medications in one minute, American Chemical Society.

Press conference: Skin patch could painlessly deliver vaccines, cancer medications in one minute, American Chemical Society.

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