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Scientists Show Off Drug Delivery System Inspired by Octopus Suckers

A octopus's suckers under red light.
Credit: Masaaki Komori on Unsplash
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A new drug delivery system based on the suckers lining octopuses’ tentacles has been shown off in a new study.

The technology was developed by a team of Chinese and Swiss researchers. The details are published in a paper in Science Translational Medicine.

How can we get a drug into the body?

Once a new drug has been identified and its impact on a target in the body has been proven, scientists must then clear the lofty hurdle of getting that drug into the body. Many drugs have unstable chemical structures that mean they have to be delivered through injections, which can restrict the drugs’ use to clinical settings or prove frustrating and painful for patients.

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As a result of this problem, a glut of bioengineering solutions has popped up, including microneedle patches and intranasal sprays. These systems can often be too complex or inefficient to perform well in real-world settings.

Zhi Luo, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzen, and colleagues designed a new delivery approach – a drug delivery “patch”, inspired by octopus suckers, that can deliver drugs through the lining of the mouth. The patch can be “loaded” with a specified drug dose and then sticks to the inside of the cheek, where it can release its cargo into the body.

A tentacle-inspired device

In the new paper, Luo and team filled their device with the drug desmopressin, a synthetic analog of the important hormone vasopressin. Desmopressin is a widely used drug, with efficacy in conditions like hemophilia A and diabetes insipidus. In model animals (dogs) the patch was found to spread the drug throughout the body in similar levels to tablet formulations of the drug. The sucker was capable of staying attached to the inside of the dogs’ mouths for three hours without falling off or causing irritation.

The octopus-inspired suction patch delivers hard-to-absorb drugs through the cheeks. Credit: ETH Zurich.

The team then tested the patch in 40 healthy human volunteers, who were asked to wear the patch for 30 minutes while they talked and rinsed their mouths.  While the patches were generally well-tolerated, 5 of 40 fell off during this period due to incorrect placement in the mouth, suggesting that patch location will be key to the approach’s effectiveness. Nevertheless, more than 70% of the volunteers said they would prefer using the patch compared to injections for both daily and weekly drug administration.

Given the robust fight the human body puts up against any foreign substances entering it – by dissolving them in stomach acid or neutralizing them with liver metabolism – the authors are hopeful that their new technique could prove a useful new way of getting drugs to where they need to be.

Reference: Luo Z, Cerrejon DK, Römer S, Zoratto N and Leroux J. Boosting systemic absorption of peptides with a bioinspired buccal-stretching patch. Sci. Trans. Med. 2023;15:eabq1887. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abq1887