“I’d rather stick needles in my eyes.”

That phrase – said famously by Jack Nicholson in the 1983 film Terms Of Endearment – has become a sarcastic catchphrase. But now, scientists in Singapore are exploring a novel method of treating eye diseases such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy that would involve pushing tiny needles into patients’ eyes.

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore developed a contact lens-like patch with nine microneedles that can be filled with drugs.

When pressed gently into the eye, the microneedles – which are biodegradable and thinner than a strand of hair – break off by themselves and remain in the cornea, continuing to release the drugs before eventually dissolving.

While the treatment might sound unappealing, the NTU team say it’s painless. And importantly, it could be a more effective technique to deliver eye drugs than current methods.

Eye injections can be painful and carry a risk of infection and eye damage, while drops and ointments can be washed out by tears or blinking and some patients struggle to continue administering them at home.

The eye patch has nine microneedles that can be loaded with drugs.
Image: NTU Singapore

The researchers tested the patch on mice with corneal vascularization, where oxygen deprivation causes new blood vessels to grow into the corneal tissue - a condition that can lead to blindness.

They found that, after a single treatment dose of 1 microgram was applied on a patch, there was a 90% reduction in the area of blood vessels, compared to no significant reduction when 10 times the amount of drug was applied in droplet form.

Professor Chen Peng, a biotechnology expert at NTU who also developed a fat-burning microneedle patch, led the research team with input from Singapore National Eye Centre’s Associate Professor Gemmy Cheung. Their findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Chen said the patch could provide an efficient and long-lasting method of localized drug delivery that patients could apply themselves at home.

“The microneedles are made of a substance found naturally in the body, and we have shown in lab tests on mice that they are painless and minimally invasive.

“If we successfully replicate the same results in human trials, the patch could become a good option for eye diseases that require long-term management at home, such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.

“Patients who find it hard to keep up with the regime of repeatedly applying eye drops and ointments would also find the patch useful as well, as it has the potential to achieve the same therapeutic effect with a smaller and less frequent dosage.”