This Star-Shaped Pill Could Revolutionize the Way We Take Medicine

Melanie Gonick / MIT
Melanie Gonick / MIT / Melanie Gonick / MIT

The future may be star-shaped—the future of medication, anyway. Scientists have created a pill that can unfurl and stay in the stomach, releasing malaria medication for weeks. The researchers, who published a report on their progress in the journal Science Translational Medicine, say the same delivery method could someday be used for almost any drug.

Malaria affects more than 200 million people each year. While treatment is available, it must be taken every day for several weeks. Many of the people affected by malaria live in remote or impoverished areas, which can make it extremely difficult for them to get and take their drugs on time. And if the treatment isn’t completed, the parasite will stick around. It’s not that the drug doesn’t work; it’s that people often can’t and don’t take it. Non-adherence—or failing to take a prescription exactly as prescribed, for as long as prescribed—is a major problem worldwide.

But a very exciting alternative is on the horizon. An interdisciplinary team of engineers and doctors invented a futuristic drug-delivery method: a time-release capsule packed with weeks’ worth of treatment.

The capsule is, well, capsule-shaped when swallowed, but it expands into a star or snowflake shape as it makes its way through the digestive tract. Once it’s fully expanded, it stays put, delivering carefully calibrated doses of medication until it breaks down as the joints connecting the arms to the core dissolve and the arms break off. These smaller pieces then pass safely through the digestive tract.

To test their creation, the research team loaded their capsule with a malaria drug called ivermectin and gave it to infected pigs. The pill worked beautifully; not only did it not hurt the pigs or prevent them from eating, but it also successfully released the ivermectin for 10 days.

The team then devised a mathematical model to see how long-acting ivermectin might work in humans. Their results showed that adding the new capsule to other standard treatments significantly increased the likelihood of eliminating malaria in a given population.

The new capsule could improve not only medicine but also medical science and drug testing, says Shiyi Zhang, co-lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at MIT during the study. "It may help doctors and the pharma industry to better evaluate the efficacy of certain drugs, because currently a lot of patients in clinical trials have serious medication adherence problems that will mislead the clinical studies," he said in a statement.

Co-senior author Robert Langer of MIT believes his team’s technology has potential for all kinds of drugs and diseases. "Until now, oral drugs would almost never last for more than a day," Langer says. "This really opens the door to ultra-long-lasting oral systems, which could have an effect on all kinds of diseases, such as Alzheimer's or mental health disorders. There are a lot of exciting things this could someday enable."