Improving inhaler design could make lung disease treatments more effective

The Canadian Lung Association estimates that more than three million patients must cope with some form of serious lung disease.

Treatment costs the Canadian health-care system more than $12 billion annually and is often self-administered by patients who inhale their medications using a hand-held device called a puffer (or inhaler).

According to engineer Edgar Matida, despite the importance of inhalers in treating lung disease, they generally perform quite poorly. “Up to 81 per cent of the original drug dosage is deposited mostly in the mouth and does not even reach the lungs.”

As he explains, these devices release the prescribed drug as a fine mist. This mist hits the mouth in very complex “flows” or patterns of particle dispersion, rather than making its way directly into the lungs. Although a patient could increase the amount of medication by puffing more than once, increased dosage is known to cause unwanted side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, muscle cramps and laboured breathing. As a result, patients with severe ailments who require several doses per day can end up distrusting the device and not strictly following the daily prescription provided by their physician.

Matida is an assistant professor in Carleton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and his current research focuses on methods to improve how effectively inhalers deliver drugs to the lungs.

He uses computer simulations to analyze the flow of medication coming out of the inhaler to understand more clearly how the mist is being deposited in the mouth and throat.

Based on his findings, inhalers could be redesigned—improvements might include special add-on mouthpieces that reduce mouth-throat deposition and more effectively direct the spray into the lungs. This research could not only lead to better treatment, but also promote the use of inhalers as an alternative for treatment of other ailments, including diabetes (specifically insulin delivery) and migraines.

Surprisingly, little research has been conducted on the performance of inhalers. “Once an inefficient device is on the market, it will stay there until the patent has expired,” Matida explains.

His work has garnered an award from the Association of Health Technologies Industry and has two patent applications. To find out more about Edgar Matida’s research, readers can visit his website at carleton.ca/mae/staff-and-faculty-listing/edgar-a-matida/.

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