MIT researchers develop double-barreled syringe for subcutaneous biologics injections

Biologic drugs treat cancer, autoimmune diseases, blood disorders and more, but they're often too viscous to administer using commercially available needles and syringes.

Now, though, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a device they think could dethrone infusions as the typical biologics delivery route: a double-barreled, lubricated syringe that makes it possible to inject high-concentration biologic drugs—and even vaccines—subcutaneously. 

Led by professor Kripa K. Varanasi, a team at the school's Department of Mechanical Engineering designed the syringe to combine the injectable drug with a thin layer of lubricant when the device's plunger is pressed down. The syringe requires one-seventh of the force needed to manually inject biologics, which typically must be diluted and administered via infusion.

"Imagine you're trying to inject honey through a syringe," Varanasi said in an interview. 

The device works like this: The drug intended for injection is contained in a central "core" inside the syringe, surrounded by a thin wall of lubricating fluid. An outer plunger pushes out the lubricant, while an inner plunger simultaneously releases the drug, easing the drug formulation's flow through the needle, Varanasi said. 

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The MIT syringe isn't the first attempt at a more convenient biologics dosing option, but it could have an edge over competitors on cost and convenience, Varanasi said.

Jet injectors provide patients with a needle-free option, but they're also complex, pricey and prone to contamination from backsplash, Varanasi explained. Biologics can also be encapsulated into injectable particles, but this method can lead to needle clogs and—ultimately—uncertainty about how much of the drug has been administered, he said.

Subcutaneous biologics can also be given via auto-injector like the well-known epinephrine injector EpiPen, but the devices are more complicated—and expensive—than the MIT device, Varanasi said, which looks and functions exactly like a typical syringe, but is easy enough to use for patients to inject themselves. 

While Varanasi's team sees its syringe as a potential route to at-home treatment for autoimmune diseases, blood disorders and more—and a means to save hospitals and patients time and money on infusions—the researchers kick-started development to aid populationwide vaccination efforts in developing countries, Varanasi said. 

Answering a call from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MIT team set out to develop a syringe that could contain multiple vaccines in a single shot. The team wanted to make a syringe patients could easily use to inject themselves—an essential consideration for countries in Africa where access to hospitals and clinics may be limited. 

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Varanasi's team published a paper on its device in Advanced Healthcare Materials; now, the team could look to spin that work into a startup company, Varanasi said, citing his prior success bringing another technology, LiquiGlide, to market.

Originally developed by MIT and a group of material science engineers to prevent clogs in oil or gas pipelines, LiquiGlide is a liquid-impregnated surface material that can be used to prevent viscous products—from cosmetics and condiments to medical devices and pharmaceuticals—from sticking to packaging or equipment. 

It's LiquiGlide that first brought Varanasi's work to the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the nonprofit has already tapped the team to potentially use its syringe technology for vaccine deployment, Varanasi said. 

Meanwhile, the MIT researchers hope to snare partnerships in the biopharmaceutical industry. Because the syringe is paired with a lubricant, unique formulations would need to be made for individual drugs, Varanasi explained, but the team hopes the device could tee up easier dosing for the more than 100 drugs currently considered too viscous for subcutaneous injection.