Inventive gadgets inspired by nature could one day replace CT scans for cancer and painful insulin shots for diabetes patients.

This week, researchers from the United States and abroad plumbed the depths of the ocean and the human body for nature-inspired solutions to medical problems. One team found inspiration in the eyes of the mantis shrimp, while another minimized the pain of getting a vaccine by developing a microneedle-covered pill.

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While human eyes can’t look at flesh and tell the difference between cancerous and healthy tissue, not every creature on planet Earth has the same set of senses. Nature has developed many different senses to process the environment because for most creatures, being alert means the difference between catching dinner and being caught by a predator.

Mantis shrimp have compound eyes that can detect polarized light. While that’s useful for avoiding underwater predators, it also turns out that cancerous tissue reflects polarized light differently than healthy tissue.

Mantis shrimp photo courtesy of Elias Levy via Flickr (CC)

All eyes convert light into a signal that is understood by the brain. Different eyes can detect different wavelengths of light. In some animals like mantis shrimp, tiny protrusions called microvilli found above photosensitive cells in the eyes allow them to see polarized light.

Researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, designed a polarization imaging sensor that combines light-sensitive elements with nanowires that mimic the microvilli. Mantis shrimp eyes also have a particular group of cells called ommatidia, which combine polarization-filtering microvilli with light-sensitive receptors.

Using shrimp-inspired technology to improve on current imaging devices, researchers used these sensors to detect early stage cancerous lesions in mice.

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Would you rather swallow a pill or head into the doctor’s office for an injection? Chances are you’d choose the pill, which not only saves you the trouble of a needle but also a trip. Unfortunately, some medications can’t be taken orally, especially those that can’t be broken down in the stomach.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Massachusetts General Hospital have come up with a micro-sized fix — a pill that is coated with tiny microneedles and contains a well that holds medication. These tiny needles inject medication directly into the stomach lining, avoiding both the digestive system and the need for an injection.

Researchers tested the microneedle pill to deliver insulin in pigs. It’s possible that one day oral insulin medication could replace or supplement a daily insulin shot.

Photo courtesy of Christine Daniloff, MIT, based on images by Carl Schoellhammer and Giovanni Traverso.

Giovanni Traverso, Ph.D., a research fellow at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, told Healthline that the new technology could be very helpful for delivering medications that require shots. Those medications include hormones, such as parathyroid hormone used to treat osteoporosis; GLP-1 agonists used for diabetes; vaccines; and antibody-based treatments used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and inflammatory bowel diseases.

While skipping the trip to the doctor’s office for a shot seems like good enough news, the device offers other benefits. Because the microneedle design is highly efficient, it could result in a reduction in pill size. “It may enable the administration of drugs that are poorly absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract, possibly decreasing the size of the capsules,” Traverso said.

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If more medication is taken orally it could also mean that the staff who now give shots could do other work instead. “This means avoiding the need and expense associated with trained personnel that administer and teach the administration of injections,” said Traverso.

Traverso and Carl Schoellhammer, lead author on a paper published last month in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, developed a prototype capsule that is 2 centimeters long and 1 centimeter in diameter, covered in stainless steel needles about 5 millimeters long. Now, the team is working to develop capsules with needles that disintegrate in the body.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of William Warby via Flickr (CC)