Scientists in the US are developing a chip that is programmed to release drugs, contained in reservoirs on the processor, into consumers? blood stream.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said this was the first device with no moving parts that can store one or more compounds in any form in the body, before releasing them on demand.
John Santini, one of the MIT scientists, explained that the 17mm squared processor had no complex circuitry, and "instead relied on simple patterns of electrodes on its surface that participate in electrochemical reactions."
The prototype is the size of a US dime and contains 34 tiny reservoirs, each the size of a pinprick that can hold about 25 nanoliters of chemical in solid, liquid or gel form.
According to Santini, such a processor could potentially hold 1,000 such reservoirs, while the reservoirs and microchips could both be made much larger or smaller, depending on the desired application.
The prototype chip testing apparatus also contains 34 wires to connect the circuitry of each reservoir to an external power source, and the researchers said it should be possible to make a device that is completely self contained, which would mean fitting it with a small battery and microprocessor.
The chip could then be preprogrammed to release the chemicals, after being triggered by remote control or activated by an onchip biosensor.
The chip would also be cheap. Santini explained: "We're making them right now in a research lab for about $20 each. With process optimisation and larger batches, I could easily see us making them for a few dollars each, or even less."
And drug delivery is a prime application. Santini claimed that the new processor would "allow you to control not only the amount of drug released, but also the exact time of delivery."
For example, some infertility treatments require wearing a small pump that delivers pulses of certain hormones every 90 minutes for weeks at a time via a catheter inserted through the skin. The hormones could potentially be incorporated into a chip that is implanted under the skin and programmed to release the contents of specific reservoirs at specific times.
"The applications, I think, are unlimited," Santini said.
Reservoirs in the processor are opened by applying a small electrical voltage between the reservoir's gold cap (the anode) and another gold structure (the cathode), which causes a current to flow between the two. The cathode remains intact during the process, while the anode dissolves due to an electrochemical reaction between it and the salt solution it is bathed in.
Santini concluded that the processor had taken five years to develop, adding: "We had a feeling it would eventually work, but it took a while to realise a functioning chip."
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