A lot can go wrong when doctors prescribe drugs to patients. For one thing, there's always a chance that someone might forget to take their pill or refill their prescription. And then there's also the risk of unmonitored side-effects, drug addiction, and overdose. So pharmaceutical companies have been trying for some time now to come up with wearable drug-delivery systems that can dispense a continuous flow of therapeutics, without having to rely on the patient to physically take the drug.
There's a problem with that approach, however, because these systems don't monitor a patient's vitals. This means they can't be responsive. So when a patient needs to take a stronger dose or when they actually feel pretty good, they still receive the same continuous flow of whatever drug they're on. Fortunately, a group of South Korean researchers may have finally found a way to fix that. According to a study published today in Nature Nanotechnology, the scientists have come up with dermal patch that not only dispenses drugs continuously, but also has the ability to determine when it's time to stop.
Heat-activated silica nanoparticles
The patch consists of a 2-inch-long rectangle made of stretchable nanomaterials. The materials contain heat-activated silica nanoparticles that monitor muscle activity and release therapeutic agents based on a patient's body temperature.
This sort of system is ideal for people who suffer from Parkinson's disease, for instance, because the tremors that accompany the movement disorder aren't constant. When a patient starts to tremble, the patch can pick up on the motion and release a small amount of the drug it contains.
The patch can pick up on tremors
"People are very interested in continuous and controlled drug delivery," said Dae-Hyeong Kim, a biomedical engineer at Seoul National University and co-author of the study, in an email to The Verge. Kim explained that because the silica nanoparticles are heat-activated, his team also embedded "stretchable heaters" into the patch that allow them to control the rate of drug delivery if needed.
But the patch isn't perfect, because it can't be activated wirelessly just yet. "In the future, wireless components should be integrated," Kim said, "and then this system will be connected to wireless networks," which will allow doctors to diagnose conditions and dispense drugs remotely.
The patch won't be ready to hit the market for at least another five years, Kim estimated. But the idea that medical technologies such as this one might actually come to fruition is still pretty exciting. It might not look like the Nike+ FuelBand or work the way Android Wear undoubtedly will, but it could still end up being the most useful piece of wearable technology to date. Plus, Kim said he thinks the patch is pretty "good-looking," so maybe it'll catch on aesthetically, too.