We describe, for the first time, the microbial characterisation of hydrogel-forming polymeric microneedle arrays and the potential for passage of microorganisms into skin following microneedle penetration. Uniquely, we also present insights into the storage stability of these hydroscopic formulations, from physical and microbiological viewpoints, and examine clinical performance and safety in human volunteers. Experiments employing excised porcine skin and radiolabelled microorganisms showed that microorganisms can penetrate skin beyond the stratum corneum following microneedle puncture. Indeed, the numbers of microorganisms crossing the stratum corneum following microneedle puncture were greater than 105 cfu in each case. However, no microorganisms crossed the epidermal skin. When using a 21G hypodermic needle, more than 104 microorganisms penetrated into the viable tissue and 106 cfu of Candida albicans and Staphylococcus epidermidis completely crossed the epidermal skin in 24 h. The hydrogel-forming materials contained no microorganisms following de-moulding and exhibited no microbial growth during storage, while also maintaining their mechanical strength, apart from when stored at relative humidities of 86%. No microbial penetration through the swelling microneedles was detectable, while human volunteer studies confirmed that skin or systemic infection is highly unlikely when polymeric microneedles are used for transdermal drug delivery. Since no pharmacopoeial standards currently exist for microneedle-based products, the exact requirements for a proprietary product based on hydrogel-forming microneedles are at present unclear. However, we are currently working towards a comprehensive specification set for this microneedle system that may inform future developments in this regard.
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