Vaccination has pretty much rid the entire western world of some of its worst child-killing diseases - but a lot of these nasties are still causing death and debilitation in developing countries. There's one simple reason: because the vaccines contain living strains of the viruses they attack, they need to be kept continuously refrigerated all the way from production to the point of use - and that's an expensive and sometimes insurmountable logistical nightmare. Which is why this invention could save literally millions of lives - a joint effort between Oxford scientists and Nova Bio-Pharma Technologies has developed a way of preserving vaccines for 6 months and beyond at up to 45°C (113°F) by putting the viruses in "suspended animation," in a thin film of sugar molecules. "Waking up" the vaccines and injecting them is a simple one-step process involving a special syringe attachment. This looks like a very significant medical advance for millions of kids across the world.
The process of manufacturing the sugar film is remarkably similar to the way you make a candied fruit peel - live vaccine is mixed with the sugars trehalose and sucrose, and then allowed to dry on a filter. The sugar eventually dries out into a thin film - much like what happens when you spill a soft drink and don't clean it up.
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When the film is dried, it's put into a small class carrier - at which point the researchers have discovered that the vaccine will survive with virtually no degradation for six months or beyond at a scorching 45°C, the sort of temperature you'd be likely to encounter frequently in a desert area.
To wake up the vaccine and inject it, you simply attach the glass carrier to a syringe full of clean water, and push the water through the dried sugar as you inject it. The water dissolves the sugars, activating the vaccine, and the solution, including the harmless sugars, flows into the bloodstream.
The process seems very effective, and more importantly, it looks extremely cheap and simple, particularly when compared to the difficulty of keeping live vaccines refrigerated through the entire logistical chain between manufacturer and patient.
What's more, it should be effective on a broad range of viral diseases - including polio, flu, diptheria, tetanus, mumps, measles, malaria, tuberculosis and even experimental new vaccines for HIV-AIDS.
So what we're looking at here is not just a chance to make a major leap forward in the vaccination of third-world kids against some of the killer diseases we've pretty much relegated to the history books in the western world - but also a chance to wipe these diseases out in the parts of the world where they're still active and incubating.
We congratulate the Oxford University/Nova Bio-Pharma Technology team on this research and wish them every success in bringing it to the market as an affordable and effective solution. Bravo!