Laser-powered ‘Needle’ Promises Pain-free Injections

A new laser-based system blasts microscopic jets of drugs into the skin could soon make getting a shot as painless as being hit with a puff of air.

The system uses an erbium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet, or Er:YAG, laser to propel a tiny, precise stream of medicine with just the right amount of force. This type of laser is commonly used by dermatologists, “particularly for facial esthetic treatments,” says Jack Yoh, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Seoul National University in South Korea, who developed the device along with his graduate students.

A time-lapse image showing a microjet fired from the laser-based injection system. Traveling through the air, the liquid in this experiment reaches a velocity of 30 meters per second (nearly 100 feet per second). Credit: Optics Letters.

Optics Letters – Er:YAG laser pulse for small-dose splashback-free microjet transdermal drug delivery

Other Needle Free Drug Delivery

The old series of Star Trek had a needle free hypospray. The hypospray has a real world counterpart called a jet injector, invented four years before the first Star Trek series debuted. It uses compressed air to inject the medication through the skin. However, unlike the hypospray, it carries the risk of cross-contamination, which has led to the jet injector falling into disuse. It also has limits for adjusting and controlling the exact dosage levels. The mechanisms used, particularly in spring-loaded designs, are one shot releases, with a coil that ejects the same amount of drug to the same depth every time, which limits the application to certain drugs or patient populations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a device which uses ultrasonic waves to open pores on the skin, allowing the injection liquid to enter the bloodstream without the use of needles.

Laser Enabled Injection

The laser is combined with a small adaptor that contains the drug to be delivered, in liquid form, plus a chamber containing water that acts as a “driving” fluid. A flexible membrane separates these two liquids. Each laser pulse, which lasts just 250 millionths of a second, generates a vapor bubble inside the driving fluid. The pressure of that bubble puts elastic strain on the membrane, causing the drug to be forcefully ejected from a miniature nozzle in a narrow jet a mere 150 millionths of a meter (micrometers) in diameter, just a little larger than the width of a human hair.

“The impacting jet pressure is higher than the skin tensile strength and thus causes the jet to smoothly penetrate into the targeted depth underneath the skin, without any splashback of the drug,” Yoh says. Tests on guinea pig skin show that the drug-laden jet can penetrate up to several millimeters beneath the skin surface, with no damage to the tissue. Because of the narrowness and quickness of the jet, it should cause little or no pain, Yoh says. “However, our aim is the epidermal layer,” which is located closer to the skin surface, at a depth of only about 500 micrometers. This region of the skin has no nerve endings, so the method “will be completely pain-free,” he says.

In previous studies, the researchers used a laser wavelength that was not well absorbed by the water of the driving liquid, causing the formation of tiny shock waves that dissipated energy and hampered the formation of the vapor bubble. In the new work, Yoh and colleagues use a laser with a wavelength of 2,940 nanometers, which is readily absorbed by water. This allows the formation of a larger and more stable vapor bubble “which then induces higher pressure on the membrane,” he explains. “This is ideal for creating the jet and significantly improves skin penetration.”

Although other research groups have developed similar injectors, “they are mechanically driven,” using piston-like devices to force drugs into the skin, which gives less control over the jet strength and the drug dosage, Yoh says. “The laser-driven microjet injector can precisely control dose and the depth of drug penetration underneath the skin. Control via laser power is the major advancement over other devices, I believe.”

Yoh is now working with a company to produce low-cost replaceable injectors for clinical use. “In the immediate future, this technology could be most easily adopted to situations where small doses of drugs are injected at multiple sites,” he says. “Further work would be necessary to adopt it for scenarios like mass vaccine injections for children.”

ABSTRACT – The microjet injector system accelerates drugs and delivers them without a needle, which is shown to overcome the weaknesses of existing jet injectors. A significant increase in the delivered dose of drugs is reported with multiple pulses of laser beam at lower laser energy than was previously used in a Nd:YAG system. The new injection scheme uses the beam wavelength best absorbable by water at a longer pulse mode for elongated microjet penetration into a skin target. A 2.9 μm Er:YAG laser at 250 μs pulse duration is used for fluorescent staining of guinea pig skin and for injection controllability study. Hydrodynamic theory confirms the nozzle exit jet velocity obtained by the present microjet system.

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