Microneedles continue to show promise as a replacement - in at least some applications - for the hypodermic needle. Typically, a sheet containing an array of the tiny needles is adhered to the patient's skin, like a bandage. The microneedles painlessly pierce the top layer of skin, then gradually deliver the medication within them by harmlessly dissolving into the patient's bloodstream. As an added bonus, once everything is complete, there are no bio-hazardous used needles to dispose of. Now, bioengineers from Massachusetts' Tufts University have developed what they claim is an even better type of microneedle, which is made from silk.

With some types of existing microneedles, the harsh conditions required for their production can destroy the sensitive biochemicals that they were supposed to deliver. It can also be difficult to fine-tune the rate at which they deliver their medication, plus infections can sometimes occur where they enter the skin. According to the Tufts scientists, their silk microneedles address all of these problems.

The team started with aluminum molding masters that contained arrays of microneedles, each needle measuring 500 micrometers in height, with tips less than 10 micrometers in diameter. An elastomer was cast over those masters to create a negative mold, then a drug-laden silk protein was cast over that mold. Once the silk was dry, it was removed from the mold, then further processed using water vapor and various other means.

The whole procedure was conducted under ambient pressure and temperature, and resulted in biocompatible, dissolving silk microneedles impregnated with the large-molecule drug, horseradish peroxidase.

Using methods such as varying the silk protein's drying time, the researchers were able to alter its structure, which in turn allowed them to precisely control its rate of drug release. It was also found that adding tetracycline to the protein inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria at the application site on the skin.

As with other types of microneedles, the silk needles can be shipped and stored without refrigeration.

The Tufts research was detailed in a paper, which was published this month in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.