Micro-needle skin patches could help fight antibiotic resistance

Skin patches that use thousands of “microneedles” to administer drugs directly into the bloodstream could reduce the risk of bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, claims Belfast team.

skin patches
Professor Ryan Donnelly along with a magnified prototype of his microneedles.

With a growing number of infections becoming harder, if not impossible, to treat, antibiotic resistance is widely considered to represent one of the biggest worldwide threats to health. There are a number of contributing factors to this growing resistance but a key driver is our reliance on oral antibiotic tablets, which bring the drugs into close contact with gut bacteria, effectively creating a perfect breeding ground for resistance.

Under development by a team of researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, the micro-array patches painlessly penetrate the top layer of skin to deliver a drug, thus bypassing the gut bacteria and potentially extending the lifespan of useful antibiotics.

“One of the biggest problems is that the huge majority of the drugs are taken orally,” explained the project’s leader Ryan Donnelly, Professor of Pharmaceutical Technology. “This means that a small quantity of the compound often finds its way into the colon, creating the perfect breeding ground for drug-resistant bacteria.”

While injection offers a potential route around this, many patients would be uncomfortable injecting themselves at home. The patch — which painlessly pierces the skin, turning into a jelly-like material that keeps the holes open and allows delivery of antibiotics into the skin for absorption into the bloodstream, offers a potential solution to this.

“We hope to show that this unique antibiotic patch prevents resistance development,” said Donnelly. “If we are successful, this approach will significantly extend the lifespan of existing antibiotics, allowing time for development of the next generation of antibiotics. In doing so, this work has the potential to save many lives.”

Placebo patches have already been successfully tested on ten volunteers in a study published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics. The next step is to show that they can deliver the correct dose of antibiotics, before testing them against drugs in capsule form. Scientists hope that the drug technology could be used to treat bacterial infections within five years following further tests. The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s largest medical research charity, will donate £900,000 to the project next year