New Device Delivers Needle-Free Injections

An amazing new technology eliminates the painful and scary part of getting shots or injections: the hypodermic needle. A laser-based system propels microscopic jets of drugs through the skin, making the injection as painless as a puff of air, according to a new paper published in the journal Optics Letters.

Also called a “liquid needle,” the laser injector releases pulses of fluid, each lasting only 250 millionths of a second, through a nozzle slightly larger than the diameter of a human hair. The researchers report that getting shots with a liquid needle “will be completely pain-free” for shallow injections, and that their method delivers precise doses of medication to the targeted area, without any tissue damage.

While this might sound like science fiction, a similar device, PharmaJet’s STRATIS needle-free injector, was FDA-cleared in 2012 to deliver vaccines or drugs through the skin or intramuscularly. Approved for use by both healthcare providers and patients who self-inject prescribed medications, such as diabetics, the needle-free injector could transform medical and dental care, particularly for the more than 20 million Americans who suffer from needle phobia.

To find out more about this remarkable breakthrough, I talked to Raed Rahman, DO, medical director of pain management at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

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What Do Needle-Free Injections Feel Like?

“Instead of the piercing pain of a needle, you may feel a slight pinch or pressure as the fluid passes through the skin,” says Dr. Rahman. “This is a promising advance, particularly for patients who have needle phobia or those who need to self-inject medications.”

As I reported recently, up to 21 percent of Americans are terrified of needles and, for 10 percent, the phobia is so extreme that they may faint at the sight of a needle or experience dramatic drops in blood pressure. “In my practice, I’ve even a patient’s friends or family get light-headed or pass out if they’re in the room during a needle procedure,” adds Dr. Rahman.

Shots and injections are particularly traumatic for kids, notes Dr. Rahman. “Parents have to spend time preparing the child for the injection—or in some cases, such as with a kid with diabetes, give the injection themselves—then they may be spending 30 minutes hugging and consoling the kid because he’s scared and hurt.”

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How Do Liquid Needles Work?

There are several ways to propel drugs or vaccines through the skin without a hypodermic needle. Current methods include the following technologies:

  • Magnets. MIT researchers have developed a jet injector that uses a Lorentz-force actuator that propels fluid at close to the speed of sound. The actuator is a tiny, powerful magnet surrounded by a coil of wire attached to a piston inside the drug vial. When current is applied, magnetic force propels a stream of medication through a nozzle as wide as a mosquito’s stinger.

The MIT engineers report that the velocity can be modified by the amount of current used, creating waveforms in two phases. During a high-pressure phase, a jet of fluid penetrates the skin and reaches the desired depth. This is followed by a lower-pressure phases in which the medication is injected in a slower stream so it can be easily absorbed by surrounding tissue.

  • Springs. PharmaJet’s STRATIS device uses a spring to activate a single-use high-velocity mechanical plunger, which expels medication at a speed of 550 feet per second. The injection only takes one-third of a second.

The injector was found to be safe and effective in four studies in which it was used to deliver measles, flu, or rabies vaccinations to adults and kids, according to its manufacturer. Lab tests showed that needle-free vaccines resulted in an equal immune system response as those injected with standard syringes and no safety issues were reported in the studies.

  • Laser-powered. This type of injector has two chambers separated by a thin, elastic membrane. One contains water that acts as the “driving” fluid; the other holds the drug. Each laser pulse, lasting just milliseconds, creates a bubble in the water that creates pressure on the drug-filled chamber, causing the medication to squirt out.

The injector is powered by a type of laser frequently used by dermatologists for cosmetic skin treatments. The South Korean engineers who developed it report that a benefit of their device over a piston-like mechanical injector is that the laser provides more precise dose control. They are now working with a company to produce low-cost needle-free devices for commercial use.

  • Vibrating powder. An even newer method being tested at MIT involves applying powdered medication to the skin, then programming the magnet-based device to vibrate at a speed that converts the powder to a fluidized form that can pass through skin like a liquid.

This method would have considerable benefits in developing countries, since powdered drugs or vaccines don’t need refrigeration—making them easier and cheaper to transport to remote villages.

Less Painful and Potentially Safer

Not only do needle-free devices take the ouch out of injections (which is a big deal, since millions of americans suffer from needle phobia), but they may also be safer for healthcare workers, points our Dr. Rahman. In the US alone, there are more than 800,000 needle-stick injuries, putting doctors and nurses at risk for catching blood-borne diseases like AIDS and hepatitis.

In one survey by the American Nurses Association, about two-thirds of the nurses polled said they’d been injured by a needle at least once, and of this group, 74 percent reported being stuck by a contaminated needle, potentially putting their health at risk.

In addition, needle-free injections could save money, given that American medical facilities spend up an estimated $2 billion a year for testing and treatment of needle-stick injuries and disposing of used needles in hazardous medical waste containers for “sharps.”

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