• Benjamin Levy

Size Does Matter



You are taking much more medicine than you need.

I don't know you and I'm not an MD or a pharmacologist, but even so I know there's more medicine in that pill you took than what you actually need. Let me explain.

I read some time ago that there are some very happy rats running around London, hopped up to the gills on Prozac. While the rat thing might be an urban legend we do have hard evidence that birds—starlings in this case—are changing their behavior as a result of ingesting large quantities of drugs originally intended for humans (link). While we're at it, let's talk about antibiotic-resistant bugs and how they got that way from living in the antibiotic rich environments of human sewers (link).


It turns out that humans are ingesting larger volumes of drugs than what we really need. I did say at the top of this story that size matters, and it does. The pills you take are made up of little grains of the actual drug you need, that drug is then covered with materials that will keep it stable and will enable it to travel through your digestive system to wherever it needs to go.

So you see, size matters. Specifically just how tiny those "little grains of the actual drug" (Prozac, the antibiotics, and hundreds of other drugs we regularly take) are. You probably already know that the larger the grain is the more difficult it will be for it to dissolve, right? Just like fine salt dissolves more quickly into water than coarse sea-salt does. The difference is that with salt you just have to stir for a little longer to get it to dissolve but we don't get to stir drugs in our digestive tract with a spoon.

So what's the problem? Let's say that you need a certain drug to be absorbed through a person's small intestine. The pill you take will stay in the small intestine for about two hours, no more than that. So if you can get all of the grains of medicine to dissolve inside of two hours then you're fine. But what happens if—because they are not small enough—those grains take longer than two hours to melt away? What will happen is that the patient will not receive the full dose they require.

The obvious solution? Add larger quantities of the drug, so even though not all of it dissolves into the bloodstream we will still be getting enough medicine to do the job. And the rest? Out into the sewers it goes where fish, starlings, and rats can have at it.

But how tiny is tiny?

Normal human brains find it difficult to deal with the very large and the very small and here we're talking about truly tiny. I recently came across a fantastically innovative company from Valencia, Spain called Bioinicia. They are the masters of the very tiny. I almost said microscopic, but "micro" is already too large a reference for them; "nanoscopic" (is that even a word?) is a better descriptor.

This should give you a better idea of what we're talking about. A (very thick) human hair is about 1/10 of a millimeter, a nanometer is 1/1,000,000 of a millimeter. Take a look:


Bioinicia have developed a process to produce ever-smaller grains of drug and encapsulate them in minute, nano-sized fibres and to do it in industrial quantities. Scientists have been able to produce nanofibers for some time now, but always in the lab and always in small batches. Going from a couple of grams to a couple of tons is major undertaking and a major achievement. The process is called electrospinning (or electrospraying) and the engineering required to make it work is simply mind-boggling. But if you wanted to see what innovative produce leadership looks like, look no further, and the applications are endless:

  • Better, more effective encapsulation for drugs, of course;

  • Thinner packaging that for foodstuffs that keeps them fresh longer AND is recyclable;

  • Bandages for burn victims that not only protect, but that serve as scaffolding for new skin to develop with little to no scarring.

As an added bonus, no more antibiotic-resistant bugs, no more rats stoned on Prozac.

#nanotechnology #innovation #productleadership #drugdelivery #pharma #bioinicia

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