How do you go from avoiding traffic accidents to avoiding painful vaccinations? Admit it. When it comes to hypodermic needles, the bravest of us cringe a little — whether it’s you or your baby getting an immunization. But what if getting an injection was nearly painless? Even better, what if needles were nearly invisible?
You might think it impossible, but not so for the ingenious minds of 3M scientists. They have figured out a way to attach hundreds of tiny microneedles to a surface the size of a dime. And they did it by drawing on a sophisticated technology in the unlikeliest of places — a technology 3M developed for use along highways.
The technology: Microreplication. First pioneered in the 1960s, the process involves layering surfaces like plastic sheets with precisely sculpted, cloned shapes. Scientists found that these exact, minuscule pyramids altered the physical, chemical and optical properties of the plastic surfaces, often in amazing ways.
The results proved nearly magical in the 1980s, when 3M applied the technology to highway signs and roadways. With thousands of tiny prisms reflecting a car’s headlights back to the driver, signs and markers on highways and in construction zones appeared significantly brighter, helping drivers find their way safely.
3M brilliance didn’t stop there. Microreplication has produced friction-reducing films that help boats move swiftly and airplanes fly more efficiently; brighten computer screens and extend the life of laptop batteries; protect mobile devices from prying eyes with microlouvers; and now, a device that dermatologists use with their patients prior to procedures or as a follow-up to the patient’s visit.
The 3M™ Microchannel Skin System contains a tiny plastic disposable patch with more than 300 solid microneedles, allowing dermatologists to create tiny holes in the skin.
From this initial application, 3M scientists are developing microneedle patches that can be used to deliver vaccines and other critical drugs and that patients might wear for as little as 10 minutes or even 10 seconds. The patches will even be easy enough for patients to use themselves. And they could potentially eliminate those painful, and sometimes tearful, injections.
Creating a new application
The development of this application started around 12 years ago with the idea that microneedles could be used to extract a tiny amount of blood or interstitial fluid from patients with diabetes to help them monitor their blood sugar without having to stick themselves with a needle, explained Kris Hansen, MTS technology and product development manager, Drug Delivery Systems Division. A few years later, Drug Delivery Systems scientists adopted the technology, developing it further to try inserting drugs into the body instead of pulling fluids out.
“Microneedles exist because we have been able to bring together several incredible 3M innovations born in the corporate groups and combine and focus them with business expertise in drug delivery to create game-changing products,” she said.
Hansen said this technology can be leveraged to make products that effect very significant, positive changes in people’s lives. “This includes the type of changes that may give people with serious chronic illnesses independence and more freedom from their diseases — changes that can safeguard an entire population from a pandemic outbreak much faster and more effectively than is currently possible.
“With microneedles, we believe we can get drugs into the body in a way that will actually make the therapies work better for our patients. That potential to help people is the most fascinating part of our microneedle technology,” Hansen added.
3M has known that little things matter. If microneedles are any indication, the tinier 3M innovations get, the bigger the impact.
“As we make strides in the scale-up of our microneedles technology, there will be many more opportunities for microneedles to contribute to products across health care. We stay connected to other divisions and bounce ideas off each other, trying to find the best fit,” Hansen said. “The ultimate vision for microneedles is much broader than drug delivery.”