CLOSE
Melanie Gonick / MIT
Melanie Gonick / MIT

This Star-Shaped Pill Could Revolutionize the Way We Take Medicine

Melanie Gonick / MIT
Melanie Gonick / MIT

The future may be star-shaped—the future of medication, anyway. Scientists have created a pill that can unfurl and stay in the stomach, releasing malaria medication for weeks. The researchers, who published a report on their progress in the journal Science Translational Medicine, say the same delivery method could someday be used for almost any drug.

Malaria affects more than 200 million people each year. While treatment is available, it must be taken every day for several weeks. Many of the people affected by malaria live in remote or impoverished areas, which can make it extremely difficult for them to get and take their drugs on time. And if the treatment isn’t completed, the parasite will stick around. It’s not that the drug doesn’t work; it’s that people often can’t and don’t take it. Non-adherence—or failing to take a prescription exactly as prescribed, for as long as prescribed—is a major problem worldwide.

But a very exciting alternative is on the horizon. An interdisciplinary team of engineers and doctors invented a futuristic drug-delivery method: a time-release capsule packed with weeks’ worth of treatment.

The capsule is, well, capsule-shaped when swallowed, but it expands into a star or snowflake shape as it makes its way through the digestive tract. Once it’s fully expanded, it stays put, delivering carefully calibrated doses of medication until it breaks down as the joints connecting the arms to the core dissolve and the arms break off. These smaller pieces then pass safely through the digestive tract.

To test their creation, the research team loaded their capsule with a malaria drug called ivermectin and gave it to infected pigs. The pill worked beautifully; not only did it not hurt the pigs or prevent them from eating, but it also successfully released the ivermectin for 10 days.

The team then devised a mathematical model to see how long-acting ivermectin might work in humans. Their results showed that adding the new capsule to other standard treatments significantly increased the likelihood of eliminating malaria in a given population.

The new capsule could improve not only medicine but also medical science and drug testing, says Shiyi Zhang, co-lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at MIT during the study. "It may help doctors and the pharma industry to better evaluate the efficacy of certain drugs, because currently a lot of patients in clinical trials have serious medication adherence problems that will mislead the clinical studies," he said in a statement.

Co-senior author Robert Langer of MIT believes his team’s technology has potential for all kinds of drugs and diseases. "Until now, oral drugs would almost never last for more than a day," Langer says. "This really opens the door to ultra-long-lasting oral systems, which could have an effect on all kinds of diseases, such as Alzheimer's or mental health disorders. There are a lot of exciting things this could someday enable."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
arrow
Medicine
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

arrow
science
A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios