Patches that deliver medicine through the skin could, in time, significantly reduce the need for injections, thanks to a three-year project launched this week by a consortium of UK scientists.

The £1.2m project, led by Queen’s University Belfast and involving researchers from the University of Bath, aims to improve drug delivery for a range of illnesses.

The microarray patch consists of microscopic projections that painlessly penetrate the skin's outermost layer to deliver a drug or vaccine. It offers a practical solution to many of the barriers faced when drugs are delivered orally or by injection.

Although there has been significant scientific progress in microarray technology, a medical product is yet to be commercialised - a challenge that this collaborative project aims to address.

Most injections are still administered in a healthcare setting. However, healthcare worldwide continues to be under pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At-home administration of injected medicines would reduce workload, freeing up healthcare workers to focus on other tasks such as diagnosis and treatment of diseases. In addition, complexities of storage, distribution and administration, needle phobia and the difficulty of domestic disposal could be avoided.

The project grant, awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, will accelerate the development of microarray patches to make them available to patients worldwide. Traditional pharmaceutical medicines contain small molecules that treat the symptoms of a disease. Treatments with small molecules delivered over longer periods of time are often administered by injection to enable slow-release treatment. This is seen, for example, with medicines used to treat TB and HIV.

Generally, biopharmaceutical medicines are also delivered by injection. This class of drugs involves large, so-called macromolecules that target the underlying mechanisms and pathways of a disease, and which are typically broken down in the stomach when taken orally.

Microarray patches enable drug treatments with both small or large molecules to be delivered efficiently, eliminating the need for injections. Replacing an injection with a microarray patch could have huge implications for the advancement of medical care.

The patches represent a discreet, easy-to-use technology. The patch surface that contacts the skin comprises many tiny projections that pierce the top layer of the skin (the stratum corneum) without causing any pain. These micro-projections create new pathways across the stratum corneum and can be designed to either enable rapid or controlled and continuous drug delivery. Consequently, microarray technology has the potential to revolutionise the administration of both biopharmaceuticals and long-acting small molecules that are otherwise unable to be delivered across the skin.

Project leader Professor Ryan Donnelly from Queen’s School of Pharmacy said: “If we can replace the need for a range of drugs and vaccines to be given by needle-and-syringe injection with a minimally-invasive and painless patch, healthcare organisations, such as the NHS, could soon benefit from reduced costs due to shorter hospital stays and more reliable drug dosing, resulting in enhanced patient quality-of-life.”

Dr Begona Delgado-Charro, from the Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology at Bath, added: “We’re delighted to be contributing to this important, translational research project, which will bring a cutting-edge technology to a range of clinical applications. Our role in the work addresses two specific issues. First, we’ll be assessing the fate of the polymers that the microneedles are made from once they are inserted into the skin. Second, we’ll be proactively engaging with regulators, doctors and industry to move things forward in bringing to market drug products that take advantage of this exciting approach.”

The three-year project will bring together experts from academia, pharmacy and clinical settings. The team includes the University of Bath, Queen’s University Belfast and Loughborough University, in conjunction with clinicians, leading companies in pharmaceutical materials and manufacture, and advanced microscopy, and the National Physical Laboratory.