One researcher in Langer’s lab, gastroenterologist Giovanni Traverso, saw the stomach as the ideal injection sight.
“Of course, you need [that] something to always be facing exactly the right place in the stomach. So, we needed to have some kind of self-righting mechanism,” added Langer.
The insulin pill is triggered by water taken with the pill to release the insulin injection at a set time in the stomach.
The next challenge for the team was how to make such a pill – one equipped with a needle – broadly appealing.
For Traverso swallowing a needle of this size raised no concerns. “With patients who have inadvertently or intentionally ingested sharp objects … if that sharp object is small enough, the likelihood of there being any complication drops dramatically,” he said. “For objects that are approximately under a centimeter, the risk of injury is very low, and it really drops precipitously after that.”
This means an injection in the stomach is not only relatively harmless and painless, but it also allows the injected treatment to circulate throughout the body very quickly.
According to Traverso, the clinical observations about the advantages of injecting insulin through the stomach – a location that allows doctors to “rapidly see a systemic response” – affirmed the team’s plan for the pill.
Drawing this kind of conclusion was born out of the nature of Langer’s lab. Langer’s lab encourages and thrives on interdisciplinary work, with researchers from diverse scientific backgrounds including chemical engineers, pharmaceutical scientists, physicians, veterinarians, and electrical engineers.
“Bob’s approach, something he’s been doing now for over 40 years, has been to try and foster an interdisciplinary environment and groups of people to work together to try and solve major challenges,” Traverso said. “About 11 years ago now, I met Bob and I was interested in doing my fellowship research with him at the time. I told him I didn’t really know much about chemical engineering or biomedical engineering but I wanted to learn. I was a gastroenterologist and molecular biologist,” Traverso said. Langer welcomed him and his unique perspective to the research team, which encourages interdisciplinary work.
“One of the things he says is that getting people who are not working in this field to really think about this field [means] that they are not burdened by all of the prejudices of the field,” Traverso added. “Bringing a fresh view can be really impactful.”
Langer has brought fresh ideas to the longstanding problem of malaria treatment. The standard treatment requires a patient to take 24 tablets over the course of three days, every eight hours.