May 24, 2012 at 3:09 PM ET
Getting a shot may soon be nearly painless, according to researchers developing a new type of syringe.
The device is able to blast a high-pressure jet of medicine at the speed of sound through a person’s skin without the aid of a hypodermic needle.
The jet is about the same diameter as a mosquito’s proboscis, Ian Hunter, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains in the video below.
“As many of you know, you don’t feel when the mosquito inserts its proboscis into your skin because it’s so very narrow,” he said.
While needle-less syringes have been around for a few years, the prototype device Hunter and his colleagues are developing can be fine-tuned to control the depth and speed of drug delivery.
For example, a shot may start with a super high-pressure blast to penetrate the skin, but then scaled back to deliver the drug in a slower stream.
This variable adjustment of the jet may ring familiar to fans of Star Trek, where medical officers are constantly fiddling with drugs and doses.
This is all possible thanks to a mechanism called a Lorentz-force actuator that MIT describes in a news release as:
A small, powerful magnet surrounded by a coil of wire that’s attached to a piston inside a drug ampoule. When current is applied, it interacts with the magnetic field to produce a force that pushes the piston forward, ejecting the drug at very high pressure and velocity. … The speed of the coil and the velocity imparted to the drug can be controlled by the amount of current applied.
The device can be programmed for different types of skin — a baby getting the whooping cough vaccine at the doctor’s office, for example, has softer skin than parents and grandparents who might also need the shot.
According to Hunter, the device can be used for delivery of drugs right through the eye into the retina as well as the inner ear.
The device can also be programmed to vibrate, which is able to make powdered drugs behave as if they were a liquid, which means it can inject powdered vaccines in parts of the world that lack refrigeration.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.