Touching Lives - March 2013
Monitoring drug levels in babies
Researchers in Belfast are developing a revolutionary new way to monitor therapeutic drug levels in a baby’s body, which does not involve taking painful blood samples.
Estimates suggest 90,000 babies spend at least a few days in neonatal units each year in the UK, many depending on life-saving medicines. Blood samples are taken to monitor the levels of medicines in their bodies, to protect babies from the side effects of treatment. This is currently done by pricking a baby’s heel with a needle so that a little spot of blood can then be squeezed onto a special card. This ‘heel-prick test’ can be painful for babies, and can cause bruising and scarring, which can be distressing for parents to witness. Also, it can’t be performed as often as is needed to give an accurate result because newborn babies have a limited blood supply. The new technique will involve placing a small patch, which looks a bit like a plaster, onto the skin. The surface of the patch is covered by many hundreds of tiny ‘microneedles’.
Dr Ryan Donnelly and his team at Queen’s University Belfast are world leaders in microneedle technology. Dr Donnelly was named GlaxoSmithKline Emerging Scientist of 2012 for his innovative work in this area. In this study the design of the microneedle patches is being fine-tuned by assessing their performance in laboratory studies. “If you run your finger across the patch, it feels like Velcro,” explains Dr Donnelly. The microneedles puncture the outer layer of the skin without causing pain or bleeding. The needles then swell, allowing skin fluid to be collected. “We believe analysis of this fluid would enable frequent, accurate, pain-free monitoring of the level of medicine in a baby’s body,” he says. The project is funded by a generous donation from The Henry Smith Charity through Action Medical Research.