Robotic jaws could make medicated chewing gum trials easier to swallow

Medicated chewing gum is a desirable drug delivery target for a host of reasons—convenience, extended release, oral administration. But testing drug-infused gum isn't so simple, with the risk of inadvertent overdose only one of the obstacles for clinical trials.

Now, a research team out of England has devised a mechanical solution—actually, a robot—that could cut study costs and provide an in-vitro testing option. 

Scientists at the University of Bristol created a pair of robotic jaws that closely mimic human chewing patterns in a closed environment. Complete with artificial saliva, the device can measure the amount of medication released after it chomps down on a piece of gum—and now the team is armed with trial data to back up their toothy automaton. 

In a study published on the bioengineering paper repository IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, the Bristol University team sought to compare the amount of xylitol left over in a piece of gum when chewed by the robot jaws and human subjects. They also measured the amount of xylitol released during the chewing process.

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The trial broke down like this: Human subjects and the chewing robot were given commercially available xylitol gum, and their saliva was collected after 5, 10, 15 and 20 minutes of continuous chewing. The largest release of xylitol occurred after five minutes, with "only a low amount" remaining after 20 minutes for both the human and robotic chewers. 

Crucially, the xylitol release triggered by the chewing robot was on par with that of the human subjects, creating an artificial mouth that works as well as a living participant's—a potential game-changer for oral drug testing, the researchers think. 

The authors pointed out the value of convenient, oral medications, and think their chewing robot could be a cost-effective way to test medicated gum, while reducing the need for humans to guinea pig those treatment options.

"The most convenient drug administration route to patients is through oral delivery methods," said Nicola West, study co-author and professor of restorative dentistry at Bristol Dental School. "This research, [using] a novel humanoid artificial oral environment, has the potential to [revolutionize] investigation into oral drug release and delivery."