Department of Defense grant bolsters ophthalmic microneedle development

Microscopic image of a microneedle array and an illustration of how it could be locked in an eye for continuous drug treatment.
Microscopic image of a microneedle array and an illustration of how it could be locked in an eye for continuous drug treatment.

Washington State University researchers will lead a $3.7 million Department of Defense grant to develop a unique microneedle system to treat common eye diseases. 

The four-year, multi-institutional grant aims to address current challenges in treating diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration, which are leading causes of blindness in the US. Current treatments require a monthly eye injection, which is inconvenient, costly and invasive. 

Roland Chen, associate professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has been working on the microneedle array since receiving a seed grant for the work in 2018 and WSU’s Commercialization Gap Fund in 2022. The array includes a small set of microneedles that are made with a 3-D printed mold. Hydrogel is used to fill the mold to create porous microneedles, through which a treatment drug can be deposited. The array is secured in the eye with a photo-responsive locking feature on the needles, which swell as the needles absorb bodily fluid and shrink when light is applied. Putting the array in the white portion of the eye allows for the drug to be injected continuously into the jelly-like core of the eyeball, called the vitreous. 

Chen’s group aims to develop a microneedle-based drug delivery system that would provide continuous treatment and last for six months in a patient’s eye.

“We can use less of the drug but maintain the drug concentration in the eye at a stable level, so we use the drug more efficiently and achieve a better patient outcome,” he said.

Using the microneedle system to treat eye diseases would also mean fewer doctor appointments for patients while helping to mitigate a shortage in ophthalmologists. 

Using the microneedle system to treat eye diseases would also mean fewer doctor appointments for patients while helping to mitigate a shortage in ophthalmologists. 

The research team is investigating different drug loading and release strategies using nanotechnologies. Chen said the exploration of different particle sizes, coatings, and porosities is key to achieving the desired drug release rate in the arrays over time. 

Once ample data has been collected on the safety and efficacy of the microneedle array, Chen and his team aim to conduct clinical trials. He also hopes that the self-adhesive, localized drug delivering array could someday be used for other difficult-to-treat areas of the body, such as the esophagus. 

The grant is funded through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) through the US Army Medical Research Office. The program aims to foster new frontiers in biomedical research to meet the demands of the American public, the military and congress, according to the CDMRP website.

Chen leads the collaboration between WSU research professor Annie Du, University of Michigan professor of ophthalmology Yannis Paulus, and Brown University professor of chemistry Ming Xian. 

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