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updated 2:00 p.m. = 29.Jan.99.PST
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A silicon microchip could one day replace painful injections, hard-to-swa= llow pills, and foul-tasting medicines.
Instead of packing it with data, scientists plan to load the tiny chip= with drugs. It could then be swallowed or implanted under the skin and p= rogrammed to release tiny quantities of drugs at precise times.
It may sound far-fetched, but researchers at the Massachusetts Institu= te of Technology say a "smart tablet" or a "pharmacy-on-a-chip" could soo= n be a reality.
"It's a drug-delivery system, but it could be used for anything," said= Dr. Robert Langer, who developed the prototype with colleagues John Sant= ini and Michael Cima.
For example, the chip might also be used in jewelry to emit scents, or= in any capacity to deliver one or more chemical compounds in specific am= ounts at specified times, Langer said.
It may even be possible to create a microchip that could be put in tel= evisions to release scents. Then, an ocean scene could be matched with th= e smell of salt air, or gardens with floral aromas.
"This is the kind of prototype that may one day make those things poss= ible," said Langer, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering a= t MIT.
The device is the first to allow the timed release of chemicals from i= nside of a microchip. A microprocessor, remote control, or biosensors can= be used as a trigger mechanism.
In a letter published in the science journal Nature on We= dnesday, the scientists described how they tested a solid-state microchip= the size of a dime. It had 34 pinprick-sized reservoirs that could hold = 25 nanoliters of chemicals in solid, liquid, or gel form. A nanoliter is = one thousand-millionth of a liter.
The researchers said they could reduce the size of the chip even furth= er, to as tiny as 0.08 inch, depending on its desired use. There is also = the potential for more than 1,000 reservoirs, maybe thousands, if the res= ervoirs are smaller.
"Envision a container with tiny little wells. Each well has a drug or = chemical and each of those wells is covered with gold. You can ... indivi= dually remove any of those gold caps," Langer explained.
"The second you release it -- and it does it immediately -- all the co= ntents will come out on demand."
Another benefit of the chip is that it is cheap. Langer and his team a= re making them in a research lab for about US$20 each. However, if they a= re produced in larger batches, the price could fall to a few dollars per = chip.
It is still too early to predict when the microchip will be widely ava= ilable, but the researchers already have two patents pending -- a US pate= nt on the fabrication of the microchips and a foreign one covering all as= pects of the technology.
Langer and his colleagues hope to test the device in animal studies an= d eventually with humans. They used gold and saline as electrode material= and a release medium, but they are already working on degradable plastic= s and other materials.
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