No one likes to get a needle – certainly not children and least of all Boris Stoeber, who had more cause for concern than most kids. As a child growing up in Germany, he suffered from hay fever so severe that he had to have an allergy shot every week.
"I never ran away," he recalls, chuckling, "but there was a lot of discomfort associated with getting these weekly injections." Then he adds: "Many people share the feeling."
Today he is 42, an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia and can be forgiven for stating the obvious because, having spent a lifetime thinking about the pain that medical injections cause most of us, he may be on the verge of solving the problem for good.
For 14 years – ever since he was a doctoral student in California – Prof. Stoeber has been trying to perfect needles that feel like … well, nothing.
The fruit of his labour are called microneedles and look like demonic postage stamps: squares dotted with tiny needles that resemble stalactites pointing up from a little metal cave.
At a glance, they may not seem especially revolutionary but Prof. Stoeber hopes that, placed on the end of a probe or as part of a patch, they can make both drug injections and vaccinations pain-free.
"There are various possibilities," he says. "You'd really only have to just press something on to your skin. That's a completely different way of using a needle."
The microneedles' secret is their ability to pierce the outer layer of the skin without touching deeper layers with their sensitive blood vessels and nerves.
This allows the drug or vaccine to reach the bloodstream without the split second of pain that is routine in most injections.
Prof. Stoeber's research – he has his own lab and team at UBC – currently enjoys federal financing through the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institute of Health Research. As well as the university's departments of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering, he works with researchers in dermatology and pharmaceutical sciences. (He has teaching commitments in all three branches of engineering as well as added research interests in the behaviour of fluids and technology to analyze dust in the air.)
His goal is to develop the microneedle to the point that it can be brought to the market, where its impact could be massive. "It would be a milestone," he says.
For example, making injections simpler and safer could reduce the manpower required to bring life-saving drugs to people in the Third World – a driving force behind his work ever since a PhD adviser pointed it out to him.
As well, he says, painless needles could make it easier for people to administer certain drugs to themselves. "Maybe that would improve patient compliance," and avoid setbacks that happen when those on the road to recovery stop taking their medication too soon.
There are, however, limits. Prof. Stoeber says that microneedles may replace hypodermics for vaccinations, many types of injection and even blood sampling. However, by staying near the surface, they cannot deliver something like insulin, which requires that a significant amount of the drug be driven deep into the tissue.
The initial prototypes were made of nickel, which gave way to gold and, starting this year, a platinum coating – all in search of a "biocompatible" material, one that work best with human biology.
To date, Prof. Stoeber has tested his needles on mice, rabbit ears and pig skin (provided by butcher shops) and confesses to having tried them on himself, feeling some pressure – but no pain.
He hopes to begin testing on humans within a year or two, but acknowledges that formal trials represent a true hurdle, even after a 14-year marathon in pursuit of a finished product.
And he is not alone on the path to production – others around the world are developing microneedles and trying at the same time to cut costs as much as possible. This is important because, while hypodermic needles can cause discomfort, they are relatively inexpensive.
Because the race is on, Prof. Stoeber says, "I would have liked things to go faster – in research, that's not always possible." When working on biomedical devices, "things are very slow," he explains, and many approval steps required – with good reason.
"You have to be very careful about what you're doing because, in the end, devices are being inserted into humans."