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Sticklers for Accuracy

Tiny needles provide better treatments for restenosis, diabetes, and more.

The hypodermic syringe hasn't changed much since its invention in 1853–needles still hurt, and they deliver drugs to specific organs with little more accuracy than a shotgun. But advances in integrated circuit fabrication have made it possible to manufacture needles so tiny they can introduce highly accurate doses of a drug painlessly and, when necessary, with pin-prick precision.

Kirk Seward, chief technology officer of the start-up EndoBionics, began working on microneedles in 1999. He was a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley, studying with mechanical engineering professor Al Pisano, a former program manager for the microelectrical mechanical systems (MEMS) program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dr. Seward's background in catheters and MEMS manufacturing gave him the idea to integrate a microneedle into a catheter, creating a tiny syringe with many intriguing applications. "Our original thoughts were for heart disease or cancer therapies, where you don't want to have a lot of possibly toxic drugs washing through the system or getting filtered out by the kidneys and liver," he says.

Now, thanks to a cash infusion in late 2002 from the medical device firm Medtronic, EndoBionics is testing its trademarked MicroSyringe for use in treating restenosis. This renarrowing of the arteries occurs in about one-third of patients who undergo balloon angioplasty, stenting, or other coronary artery surgeries. To prevent restenosis, a drug-coated stent is often implanted at the time of the angioplasty.

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