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Researchers engineer tiny machines that deliver medicine efficiently

Johns Hopkins Researchers engineer tiny machines that deliver medicine efficiently
A theragripper is about the size of a speck of dust. This swab contains dozens of the tiny devices. Credit: Johns Hopkins University.

Inspired by a parasitic worm that digs its sharp teeth into its host’s intestines, Johns Hopkins researchers have designed tiny, star-shaped microdevices that can latch onto intestinal mucosa and release drugs into the body.

David Gracias, Ph.D., a professor in the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, and Johns Hopkins gastroenterologist Florin M. Selaru, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, led a team of researchers and biomedical engineers that designed and tested shape-changing microdevices that mimic the way the parasitic hookworm affixes itself to an organism’s intestines.

Made of metal and thin, shape-changing film and coated in a heat-sensitive paraffin wax, “theragrippers,” each roughly the size of a dust speck, potentially can carry any drug and release it gradually into the body.

The team published results of an animal study this week as the cover article in the journal Science Advances.

Gradual or extended release of a drug is a long-sought goal in medicine. Selaru explains that a problem with extended-release drugs is they often make their way entirely through the gastrointestinal tract before they’ve finished dispensing their medication.

“Normal constriction and relaxation of GI tract muscles make it impossible for extended-release drugs to stay in the intestine long enough for the patient to receive the full dose,” says Selaru, who has collaborated with Gracias for more than 10 years. “We’ve been working to solve this problem by designing these small drug carriers that can autonomously latch onto the intestinal mucosa and keep the drug load inside the GI tract for a desired duration of time.”

Researchers engineer tiny machines that deliver medicine efficiently
When an open theragripper, left, is exposed to internal body temperatures, it closes on the instestinal wall. In the gripper’s center is a space for a small dose of a drug. Credit: Johns Hopkins University

Thousands of theragrippers can be deployed in the GI tract. When the paraffin wax coating on the grippers reaches the temperature inside the body, the devices close autonomously and clamp onto the colonic wall. The closing action causes the tiny, six-pointed devices to dig into the mucosa and remain attached to the colon, where they are retained and release their medicine payloads gradually into the body. Eventually, the theragrippers lose their hold on the tissue and are cleared from the intestine via normal gastrointestinal muscular function.

Gracias notes advances in the field of biomedical engineering in recent years.

“We have seen the introduction of dynamic, microfabricated smart devices that can be controlled by electrical or chemical signals,” he says. “But these grippers are so small that batteries, antennas and other components will not fit on them.”

Theragrippers, says Gracias, don’t rely on electricity, wireless signals or external controls. “Instead, they operate like small, compressed springs with a temperature-triggered coating on the devices that releases the stored energy autonomously at body temperature.”

The Johns Hopkins researchers fabricated the devices with about

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Researchers engineer tiny machines that deliver medicine efficiently — ScienceDaily

Inspired by a parasitic worm that digs its sharp teeth into its host’s intestines, Johns Hopkins researchers have designed tiny, star-shaped microdevices that can latch onto intestinal mucosa and release drugs into the body.

David Gracias, Ph.D., a professor in the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, and Johns Hopkins gastroenterologist Florin M. Selaru, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, led a team of researchers and biomedical engineers that designed and tested shape-changing microdevices that mimic the way the parasitic hookworm affixes itself to an organism’s intestines.

Made of metal and thin, shape-changing film and coated in a heat-sensitive paraffin wax, “theragrippers,” each roughly the size of a dust speck, potentially can carry any drug and release it gradually into the body.

The team published results of an animal study this week as the cover article in the journal Science Advances.

Gradual or extended release of a drug is a long-sought goal in medicine. Selaru explains that a problem with extended-release drugs is they often make their way entirely through the gastrointestinal tract before they’ve finished dispensing their medication.

“Normal constriction and relaxation of GI tract muscles make it impossible for extended-release drugs to stay in the intestine long enough for the patient to receive the full dose,” says Selaru, who has collaborated with Gracias for more than 10 years. “We’ve been working to solve this problem by designing these small drug carriers that can autonomously latch onto the intestinal mucosa and keep the drug load inside the GI tract for a desired duration of time.”

Thousands of theragrippers can be deployed in the GI tract. When the paraffin wax coating on the grippers reaches the temperature inside the body, the devices close autonomously and clamp onto the colonic wall. The closing action causes the tiny, six-pointed devices to dig into the mucosa and remain attached to the colon, where they are retained and release their medicine payloads gradually into the body. Eventually, the theragrippers lose their hold on the tissue and are cleared from the intestine via normal gastrointestinal muscular function.

Gracias notes advances in the field of biomedical engineering in recent years.

“We have seen the introduction of dynamic, microfabricated smart devices that can be controlled by electrical or chemical signals,” he says. “But these grippers are so small that batteries, antennas and other components will not fit on them.”

Theragrippers, says Gracias, don’t rely on electricity, wireless signals or external controls. “Instead, they operate like small, compressed springs with a temperature-triggered coating on the devices that releases the stored energy autonomously at body temperature.”

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Materials provided by Johns Hopkins Medicine. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Johns Hopkins Researchers engineer tiny machines that deliver medicine efficiently

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IMAGE: When an open theragripper, left, is exposed to internal body temperatures, it closes on the instestinal wall. In the gripper’s center is a space for a small dose of a…
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Credit: Johns Hopkins University

Inspired by a parasitic worm that digs its sharp teeth into its host’s intestines, Johns Hopkins researchers have designed tiny, star-shaped microdevices that can latch onto intestinal mucosa and release drugs into the body.

David Gracias, Ph.D., a professor in the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, and Johns Hopkins gastroenterologist Florin M. Selaru, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, led a team of researchers and biomedical engineers that designed and tested shape-changing microdevices that mimic the way the parasitic hookworm affixes itself to an organism’s intestines.

Made of metal and thin, shape-changing film and coated in a heat-sensitive paraffin wax, “theragrippers,” each roughly the size of a dust speck, potentially can carry any drug and release it gradually into the body.

The team published results of an animal study this week as the cover article in the journal Science Advances.

Gradual or extended release of a drug is a long-sought goal in medicine. Selaru explains that a problem with extended-release drugs is they often make their way entirely through the gastrointestinal tract before they’ve finished dispensing their medication.

“Normal constriction and relaxation of GI tract muscles make it impossible for extended-release drugs to stay in the intestine long enough for the patient to receive the full dose,” says Selaru, who has collaborated with Gracias for more than 10 years. “We’ve been working to solve this problem by designing these small drug carriers that can autonomously latch onto the intestinal mucosa and keep the drug load inside the GI tract for a desired duration of time.”

Thousands of theragrippers can be deployed in the GI tract. When the paraffin wax coating on the grippers reaches the temperature inside the body, the devices close autonomously and clamp onto the colonic wall. The closing action causes the tiny, six-pointed devices to dig into the mucosa and remain attached to the colon, where they are retained and release their medicine payloads gradually into the body. Eventually, the theragrippers lose their hold on the tissue and are cleared from the intestine via normal gastrointestinal muscular function.

Gracias notes advances in the field of biomedical engineering in recent years.

“We have seen the introduction of dynamic, microfabricated smart devices that can be controlled by electrical or chemical signals,” he says. “But these grippers are so small that batteries, antennas and other components will not fit on them.”

Theragrippers, says Gracias, don’t rely on electricity, wireless signals or external controls. “Instead, they operate like small, compressed springs with a temperature-triggered coating on the devices that releases the stored energy autonomously at body temperature.”

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The Johns Hopkins researchers fabricated the devices with about 6,000 theragrippers per 3-inch silicon wafer. In their animal experiments, they loaded a pain-relieving drug onto the grippers. The researchers’

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Could a career as a biomedical engineer tech. be for you?

Retiring baby boomers and pandemic-induced worker shortages have created a surging demand for biomedical engineering technicians, industry experts said in a recent virtual panel discussion.

Hosted by Houston Community College’s Global Energy Center of Excellence, panelists included Dr. Mehmet Argin, dean of Global Energy Center of Excellence; David Echols, HCC Electronics Engineering Technology Program advisory board chairman and field administration for AEI Medical Equipment Services, Rajan Sharma, vice president for Sunbelt Medical Corporation, Ronald Robb, assistant director of biomedical engineering with Texas Children’s Hospital, and Tim Tatum, director of biomedical engineering for Harris Health Hospital System.

What does a BMET do?

BMETs, also known as biomed techs, operate, repair and maintain essential medical equipment at hospitals. It is a rewarding and high-wage career, said Echols, and can be a springboard to other opportunities. Sharma called it a growing field, poised to see employment growth over the next decade.


“Most people who are in biomed have been in it for 35 plus years,” said Ecchols. “There’s a transition that’s going on right now, because baby boomers are moving out, older people are retiring.”

Biomed technicians know the outline of the hospital, Ecchols said, and the different ways each department uses the equipment.

“If a defibrillator or monitor goes down, they call biomed,” said Ecchols.

The coronavirus revealed the need for frontline workers in emergency medical services. Tatum said a more accurate term would be “healthcare technology” instead of “biomed technology.” A BMET is not someone who works in a lab.

Certifications and salaries

Most BMETs earn a two-year associate’s degree from an accredited medical technology school.

“However, there are some that do the four-year college and get a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, so that’s also an option,” said Sharma. “You can go further with more training and certifications and get to a higher level.”

The starting salaries, for those straight out of school with no experience, are in the $40,000 per year range, panelists said.

“There’s lots of room for growth, we have quite a number of our techs doing well over $100,000 a year based on experience and skill levels,” said Robb.

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