Imagine a future where people with chronic diseases like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis no longer needed to rely on injections to stay healthy. It’s much closer than you might realize. Inventor Mir Imran, Indian-born founder of Silicon Valley research and business incubator InCube Labs, has created a “robotic” pill that contains an ingestible polymer and tiny, hollow needles made of sugar, which safely deliver insulin into the patient’s small intestines. Currently in pre-clinical studies, this pill — which is backed by Google’s venture-capital unit — could disrupt the multibillion-dollar market for injectable drugs, while also making life much easier for patients who use it. “This investment is not exactly in our wheelhouse, but we’re open to people who can change our minds,” Blake Byers, Google Ventures general partner, told The Wall Street Journal. “This one really stood out as a huge clinical need; $110 billion is spent in the U.S. every year on biologics, all of them injectable.”
The pill works on what Imran called an “autonomic robotic delivery system,” which allows it to stay intact long enough to deliver the drug in the small intestines. This pill was designed to work with the body’s digestive system. As it reaches the intestines, the acidity dissolves the pill’s outer layer, exposing a valve with two chemicals: citric acid and sodium bicarbonate. These chemicals then mix together to create carbon dioxide, which acts as an energy source, inflating a “balloon-like structure” that contains needles made of sugar and preloaded with drugs. The needles push into the intestinal wall, where they detach and slowly dissolve. The rest of the device passes naturally from the body. Pre-clinical trials have shown that Imran’s robotic pill has just as much potential for drug absorption as injections, if not more. “He is getting results that I have not seen before,” said Elliott Sigal, a retired pharmaceutical drug developer. “It hasn’t been tried in human patients yet, and things do sometimes fail at that level. But if the [trials] data continues, there will be a great deal of pharma interest.”
Imran’s invention, made by InCube’s Rani Therapeutics, is the latest in a stream of high-tech, robotic pills. Earlier this month, the FDA approved Given Imaging’s PillCam, a revolutionary device that is exactly what it sounds: a camera in pill form. This tool can be used to screen for and diagnose diseases in the digestive track and colon without the use of endoscopies or colonoscopies. And in 2012, the FDA approved Proteus Digital Health’s Feedback System, an “ingestible sensor” that connects with Bluetooth to track how patients take their pills. While Imran and Rani Therapeutics still have a long way to go before their robotic pill seeks FDA approval — it will be a year, at least, until the process is started — it has the potential to help millions of people.