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Health and Medicine

Patch delivers drugs wirelessly

Looking like a Band-Aid, the soft, wearable device piloted at Carolina is a breakthrough for treating chronic illness.

Close-up image of wearable patch with pieces of bits of tech exposed.
The patch, which has received a provisional patent, enables highly localized treatment of specific tissues, organs or regions within the body, and drug release can be triggered within 30 seconds in response to an electrical signal. (Courtesy of UNC Health)

UNC-Chapel Hill scientists created a new drug delivery system that can receive commands wirelessly from a smartphone or computer to schedule and trigger the release of drugs from individual microneedles. Resembling a Band-Aid, the Spatiotemporal On-Demand Patch’s thin, soft platform was designed to enhance user comfort and convenience, since wearability is a crucial factor for chronically ill patients.

The research team, led by Juan Song, professor in the UNC School of Medicine’s pharmacology department, and , assistant professor in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences’ applied physical sciences department, tested the patch in a mouse model, using melatonin in the microneedles to improve sleep.

This research, published in the journal Nature Communications, opens the door to researching this wirelessly controlled patch to deliver on-demand treatments for neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. The UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health  to test the patch in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.

The patch’s ability to enable joint delivery of multiple drugs could address various aspects of Alzheimer’s disease, such as reducing beta-amyloid plaques, mitigating neuroinflammation and enhancing cognitive function, said Bai, a co-senior author.

The open access paper, “,” was co-authored by Yihang Wang of applied physical sciences and Zeka Chen of pharmacology. Bai said the research highlights not only a multidisciplinary collaboration but also a “passionate involvement of Carolina undergraduate students,” including Priyash Hafiz of applied physical sciences and Brayden Davis, Will Lipman, Tian Wang and Sicheng Xing of the UNC/NCSU biomedical engineering joint department.

The patch, which has received a provisional patent, enables highly localized treatment – less than 1 square millimeter – of specific tissues, organs or regions within the body, and drug release can be triggered within 30 seconds in response to an electrical signal. Patients could wear more than one patch at a time, which would reduce the need for doctors’ visits or even trips to the hospital for medical attention.

“The beauty of this device is that it can house dozens, if not hundreds, of concentrated drugs and can program their sequential release automatically,” said Song, who is a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center. “Rapid drug release can be crucial in emergency situations or when immediate therapeutic action is required.”

The microneedles are coated with gold, which protects the drugs and surrounding tissues. When a low-voltage electrical stimulus is applied through the patch, the gold coating disintegrates, exposing the drug-loaded microneedles to the skin and starting the controlled release of the drugs.

“This level of specificity ensures precise and customized drug delivery, catering to the needs of different conditions or specific regions of the body,” said Wang. “This offers a novel approach to achieving controlled drug release through a combination of materials science and electrical engineering.”

The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health funded this research.