Capsule which delivers medicine for weeks after swallowing could revolutionise HIV treatment

24 November 2016

A new pill technology has the potential to simplify HIV treatment and curb the rise of drug-resistant HIV.

The star-shaped capsule is bound into a single length when ingested - once in the stomach the binding dissolves and the arms of the star open out to begin slowly dispensing the medication they contain.

Scientists have developed a new type of pill that stays in the stomach for up to two weeks after being swallowed, gradually releasing its contents.  

In a study published in Science Translational Medicine, researchers used the new capsule to deliver anti-parasitic medication to combat malaria. However, the new capsule has the potential to simplify a whole range of medical treatments including the treatment of HIV.

"Until now, oral drugs would almost never last for more than a day," said Robert Langer, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who worked on the study.

"This really opens the door to ultra-long-lasting oral systems ... There are a lot of exciting things this could someday enable."

The long-acting drug delivery technology could revolutionise the treatment of HIV, in which adherence – taking medicines every day exactly as prescribed – can be a challenge and result in serious consequences.

Poor adherence can lead to the development of drug resistance – where HIV becomes resistant to some anti-HIV drugs reducing the effectiveness of treatment. Beyond the health risks to individual patients, the spread of drug resistant HIV is a serious public health issue and the World Health Organization is developing a five-year action plan to combat it.

A pill which need only be taken every two weeks, or at even longer intervals, could potentially reduce the impact of shorter stock-outs.

The potential benefits of this capsule could be particularly significant for developing countries and places with fewer resources where poor infrastructure can lead to stock-outs meaning many people do not have consistent access to medication. A pill which need only be taken every two weeks, or at even longer intervals, could potentially reduce the impact of shorter stock-outs.

In rich countries, injections, pumps and implanted devices are used to deliver medication continuously – though not as yet HIV treatment – however, these can be expensive and intrusive. In developing countries, the cost and complexity of such medical interventions can put them out of reach.

Although the capsules have only so far been tested in pigs and with anti-parasitic medications, the technology has been developed specifically to dispense a large array of medication. The research team is currently working on developing similar capsules to deliver medication for other tropical diseases, as well as HIV and tuberculosis. They also intend to continue to develop the drug delivery system so that it can slowly release medication for one month or longer.

Photo credit:
Melanie Gonick

Written by Caitlin Mahon

Content Specialist - HIV & Sexual Health