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Oral Insulin Delivery: Can the Tortoise Win the Race?

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Turtle shape compared to capsule shape
Caption: The African leopard tortoise’s shape inspired a new insulin-injecting “pill” (right). Credit: Alex Abramson

People with diabetes often must inject insulin multiple times a day to keep their blood glucose levels under control. So, I was intrigued to learn that NIH-funded bioengineers have designed a new kind of “pill” that may someday reduce the need for those uncomfortable shots. The inspiration for their design? A tortoise!

The new “pill”—actually, a swallowable device containing a tiny injection system—is shaped like the shell of an African leopard tortoise. In much the same way that the animal’s highly curved shell enables it to quickly right itself when flipped on its back, the shape of the new device is intended to help it land in the right position to inject insulin or other medicines into the stomach wall.

The hunt for a means to deliver insulin in pill form has been on ever since insulin injections first were introduced, nearly a century ago. The challenge in oral delivery of insulin and other “biologic” drugs—including therapeutic proteins, peptides, or nucleic acids—is how to get these large biomolecules through the highly acidic stomach and duodenum, where multiple powerful digestive enzymes reside, and into the bloodstream unscathed. Past efforts to address this challenge have met with only limited success.

In a study published in the journal Science, a team, led by Robert Langer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and Giovanni Traverso, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, took a new approach to the problem by developing a tiny, ingestible injection system [1]. They call their pea-sized device SOMA, short for “self-orienting millimeter-scale applicator.”

In designing SOMA, the researchers knew they had to come up with a design that would orient the injection apparatus correctly. So they looked to the African leopard tortoise. They knew that, much like a child’s “weeble-wobble” toy, this tortoise can easily right its body if tipped over due to its low center of gravity and highly curved shell. With the shape of the tortoise shell as a starting point, the researchers used computer modeling to perfect their design. The final result features a partially hollowed-out, polymer-and-steel capsule that houses a tiny, spring-loaded needle tipped with compressed, freeze-dried insulin. There is also a dissolvable sugar disk to hold the needle in place until the time is right.

Here’s how it works: once a SOMA is swallowed and reaches the stomach, it quickly orients itself in a way that its needle-side rests against the stomach wall. After the protective sugar disk dissolves in stomach acid, the spring-loaded needle tipped with insulin is released, injecting its load of insulin into the stomach wall, from which it enters the bloodstream. Meanwhile, the spent SOMA device passes on through the digestive system.

The researchers’ tests in pigs have shown that a single SOMA can successfully deliver insulin doses of up to 3 milligrams, comparable to the amount a human with diabetes might need to inject. The tests also showed that the device’s microinjection did not damage the animals’ stomach tissue or the muscles surrounding the stomach. Because the stomach is known for being insensitive to pain, researchers expect that people receiving insulin via SOMA wouldn’t feel a thing, but much more research is needed to confirm both the safety and efficacy of the new device for human use.

Meanwhile, this fascinating work serves as a reminder that when it comes to biomedical science, inspiration sometimes can come from the most unexpected places.


[1] An ingestible self-orienting system for oral delivery of macromolecules. Abramson A, Caffarel-Salvador E, Khang M, Dellal D, Silverstein D, Gao Y, Frederiksen MR, Vegge A, Hubálek F, Water JJ, Friderichsen AV, Fels J, Kirk RK, Cleveland C, Collins J, Tamang S, Hayward A, Landh T, Buckley ST, Roxhed N, Rahbek U, Langer R, Traverso G. Science. 2019 Feb 8;363(6427):611-615.


Diabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Langer Lab (MIT, Cambridge)

Giovanni Traverso (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston)

NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering

Blast Off! Sending Human Tissue Chips into Space

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Tissue Chips in Space

Credit: Josh Valcarcel, NASA

A big challenge in unlocking the mysteries of aging is how long you need to study humans, or even human cells, to get answers. But, in partnership with NASA, NIH is hoping that space will help facilitate this important area of research.

It’s already known, from what’s been seen in astronauts, that the weightless conditions found in space can speed various processes associated with aging. So, might it be possible to use the space station as a lab to conduct aging experiments?

Tracking Peptides in Cell Soup

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Lipid Morphology

Credit: William Wimley, Tulane University, New Orleans

If you think this soup looks unappealing for this year’s Thanksgiving feast, you’re right! If you were crazy enough to take a sip, you’d find it to be virtually flavorless—just a salty base (red) with greasy lipid globules (green) floating on top. But what this colorful concoction lacks in taste, it makes up for as a valuable screening tool for peptides, miniature versions of proteins that our bodies use to control many cellular processes.

In this image, William Wimley, an NIH-supported researcher at Tulane University, New Orleans, has stirred up the soup and will soon add some peptides. These peptides aren’t made by our cells, though. They’re synthesized in the lab, allowing Wimley and team to tweak their chemical structures and hopefully create ones with therapeutic potential, particularly as smart-delivery systems to target cells with greater precision and deliver biological cargoes such as drugs [1].

MicroED: From Powder to Structure in a Half-Hour

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MicroED determines structure in 30 min

Credit: Adapted from Jones et al.

Over the past few years, there’s been a great deal of excitement about the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for mapping the structures of large biological molecules like proteins and nucleic acids. Now comes word of another absolutely incredible use of cryo-EM: determining with great ease and exquisite precision the structure of the smaller organic chemical compounds, or “small molecules,” that play such key roles in biological exploration and drug development.

The new advance involves a cryo-EM technique called microcrystal-electron diffraction (MicroED). As detailed in a preprint on [1] and the journal Angewandte Chemie [2], MicroED has enabled researchers to take the powdered form of commercially available small molecules and generate high-resolution data on their chemical structures in less than a half-hour—dramatically faster than with traditional methods!

A Ray of Molecular Beauty from Cryo-EM

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Credit: Subramaniam Lab, National Cancer Institute, NIH

Walk into a dark room, and it takes a minute to make out the objects, from the wallet on the table to the sleeping dog on the floor. But after a few seconds, our eyes are able to adjust and see in the near-dark, thanks to a protein called rhodopsin found at the surface of certain specialized cells in the retina, the thin, vision-initiating tissue that lines the back of the eye.

This illustration shows light-activating rhodopsin (orange). The light photons cause the activated form of rhodopsin to bind to its protein partner, transducin, made up of three subunits (green, yellow, and purple). The binding amplifies the visual signal, which then streams onward through the optic nerve for further processing in the brain—and the ability to avoid tripping over the dog.

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