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Will robots replace needles in the doctor's office?

June 6, 2017
By Rocco Portaro

Is it possible that in the not too distant future robots will eliminate needles in the doctor's office?  Whether you're getting your annual flu vaccine or taking your child to get immunized, needles can often create a stressful experience.  Newly developed prototypes might make needle-free injection closer to a reality than it might seem. These devices use an old school technology known as liquid jet injection and blend it with modern electronics to provide a pain/needle free, Star-Trek (Sci-Fi) style injection.

How It Works

At this point, you might be wondering how scientists deliver an injection without using a cold, pointy piece of metal to puncture soft human flesh. The answer is quite simple: they use the medication itself as a needle. The drug is compressed through a very small opening, no bigger than taking just a few strands of human hair twisted together. 

As the medication is forced through this small opening, it accelerates, reaching speeds that rival those of commercial jet planes.  The medication which is now travelling at break-neck speeds, and confined to a jet that is about ten times smaller than a conventional needle, pierces the skin and deposits the medication where it is needed. The entire injection process lasts only a fraction of a second, you literally blink and it's complete.  Although the process of forcing liquid through small hole might seem easy, it must be done very accurately and quickly for a successful injection. This requires the use of sophisticated robotics in conjunction with some very complex mathematics, and we've almost mastered this part. In fact, we now have experimental prototypes capable of accurately delivering a broad range of drugs to very accurate tissue depths, bringing us very close to doing away with those pesky metal needles.


The benefits offered by this technology extend far beyond just eliminating phobias associated with needles. Every year 2 billion injections are performed worldwide. The bio-hazardous waste which results from these injections is dangerous and very costly to treat. The liquid jet injector does not generate bio-hazardous waste and what’s more, because there are no sharp edges, it eliminates the risk of accidental needle stick injuries for health care workers.

The cost per injection is also cheaper when compared to the conventional needles. Although only in prototype phase at the moment, they’re expected to cost about .05$ per injection, compared to .35$ for hypodermic needle. This, in itself, has a far greater impact than just saving money. It also means that developing countries have access to a low-cost alternative and can move away from needle reuse, a practice that has led to the transmission of deadly viruses such as HIV.
If you're more concerned about how this technology will affect your actual quality of care, then don't worry. Perhaps one of the best benefits is that drug absorption is actually quicker and more efficient using liquid jet injection than traditional needles.

Aside from the obvious benefits, liquid jet injection also provides a platform for up-and-coming drug therapies.  A recent study showed that this technology can be used to directly deliver medication to organs like the heart without damaging sensitive tissue, a feat which was previously impossible. New more efficient vaccines are being developed which target very shallow layers of the skin. These drugs will target cells that provoke strong "Bruce Lee" type responses from our immunological system. The robotic injectors can tailor the injection pressure and offer a cheap way to get the new drugs to patients.

So will robots really eliminate needles in the doctor's office? I believe they will not only replace traditional hypodermic needles but also serve as an expressway for new life saving drug therapies to make their way into our bodies from the outside world.

About the author

Rocco Portaro received his Master's degree from Concordia University in Mechanical Engineering, whereby he developed an expertise in fluid dynamics and manufacturing. His current research interests lie in the field of biomedical engineering, an area that utilizes engineering principles to solve problems faced by clinicians. He is currently developing technology for needle-free drug delivery.  He also founded an engineering firm specializing in industrial automation, through which he wishes to offer young engineering students an opportunity to hone their skills.

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