How a sister's fear of needles became a PhD success

When Michael Hoffman graduates with his PhD this month, he knows his research is part of a potential revolution in how we take blood from reluctant patients. But the story behind it is far more personal.

Michael Hoffman wears his PhD regalia in front of greenery
Michael Hoffman's PhD focused on a needle-less way to collect blood

It’s a vivid memory: Michael Hoffman as an undergraduate helping support his younger sister when she is given a blood test. She is a 16-year-old with Down Syndrome and autism, and faced with an approaching needle, is frightened and recalcitrant. It takes more than one person to hold her down while the phlebotomist takes the sample.

It is not a fun experience, but for the young student it turns out to be life-changing.

A year or so later, during his final year at the University of Auckland where he was specialising in biomedical engineering, Michael started talking to Professor Andrew Taberner from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) about the latter's research into using needle-free jet injection technology to deliver drugs directly into the skin.

Andrew Taberner's jet injectors created a hair-thin jet of fluid travelling at 200 metres per second and able to deliver drugs though skin and tissue.

Michael thought about his sister and how difficult it is to get blood from someone who is uncooperative. The problem, if you are using a needle, is that you have to keep the needle still and inside someone’s vein for the whole length of the procedure.

“I had reflected at the time that there had to be a better way to get information from blood. And hearing about Andrew’s jet injection technology got me excited about potential applications for quick, needle-free blood sampling.”

Michael Hoffman and his mother and father in front of celebratory balloons
Auckland Bioengineering Institute PhD graduate Michael Hoffman celebrates with his parents

In December last year, Michael successfully defended his PhD thesis, “Lancet and needle-free blood insulin therapy using a controllable jet injector.”

Starting with the idea that for needle-averse diabetics it might be easier to use jet injection for taking blood for glucose measurement (as well as for delivering insulin), Michael looked at ways to increase the amount of blood you could get out using this method.

In particular, he studied using a partial vacuum and found that could significantly increase the volume of blood.

I’m proud to have been able to demonstrate you can use jet injection technology to collect blood.

Michael Hoffman Auckland Bioengineering Institute PhD graduate

“My human trial was a success and I’m proud to have been able to demonstrate you can use jet injection technology to collect blood that could be used for glucose concentration measurement.” 

More has to be done to bring it to real world use, Michael says, but it’s a good first step.

“Hopefully with the improvement of analysis techniques and jet injections, we will be able to get more blood and it will indicate more,” he says.

And the examiners were impressed too, with one saying his work was “of the highest quality I have seen from a PhD thesis”, and “commending the student for their work”. 

Michael now works as a Professional Teaching Fellow for the Department of Engineering Science but is keen to be involved in jet injection research in the future.

Michael Hoffman is one of 13 ABI students graduating this month – 10 with PhDs and three with masters degrees.

Media contact

Nikki Mandow | Research communications
M: 021 174 3142