Vaccines are a medical wonder, but at the moment they are a pain: unpleasant for the recipient and difficult and costly to transport and store.
In answer to this, scientists have now created a potentially revolutionary vaccine patch that is painless and costs just $1 to produce.
Unveiled to audiences at a TEDGlobal event in Edinburgh, UK, by Australian inventor Professor Mark Kendall, the Nanopatch works by using thousands of tiny projections that only perforate the skin.
Currently, a syringe is used to puncture the skin to deliver the vaccine into muscle tissue, but this has long been known to be inefficient.
Research has shown that the skin has an abundance of immune cells that could make it the “vaccine sweet spot,” as Kendall calls it, and much better suited for vaccine uptake than muscle, which has relatively little immunity-spreading ability.
Due to the better uptake, the Nanopatch therefore requires less vaccine to be used than the traditional syringe-to-muscle delivery method. In turn, this will likely serve to drive down costs.
“A vaccine that had cost $10 can be brought down to just 10 cents,” Kendall told the BBC.
Cost reduction is further helped by the fact that the Nanopatch uses a dry vaccine, so there is no longer a need for cumbersome or expensive liquid storage or strict temperature regulation.
Kendall is quoted as saying that, unlike liquid vaccines, the patch will remain usable even if kept for a year at a temperature of 23 degrees Celsius/73 degrees Fahrenheit.
As a result, this will make transportation of vaccines much easier, and it is this quality when teamed with a lower cost that could serve to be of most benefit in the developing world.
It isn’t the first time the patch idea has been looked at. Researchers from Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology published encouraging findings in 2010 from tests with a patch that used micro-needles, similar to but distinct from the Nanopatch.
What does the medical community make of this new breakthrough Nanopatch? A representative for the British Society for Immunology is quoted as giving this a positive, if qualified, welcome. ”This approach holds out hope for easy and large-scale vaccination, as it targets a type of immune cell, called the Langerhans cell, that is abundant in the skin,” said Dr Diane Williamson.
“However,” she continues, “one of the potential issues with skin delivery is transit time and ensuring adequate delivery of the vaccine payload. Also there may be issues of tolerability of the patch in some people.”
Nevertheless, Williamson goes on to say that if these issues can be addressed, the patch has the potential to replace the current delivery method. Inventor Kendall told the TEDGlobal event that a pilot trial for the Nanopatch will now soon start in Papua New Guinea.
The country currently has the highest rate of human papilomavirus (HPV) infections and, unsurprisingly given their established connection, one of the highest rates of cervical cancer. Vaccination in Papua New Guinea has been difficult, though, because there is a shortage of facilities suitable for storing and delivering vaccine. It is hoped the patch method could change all that.
Kendall also hopes that other scientists will now explore the Nanopatch technology to create vaccines for other diseases, potentially even tackling HIV or malaria.
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