Edible vaccines stored in cheap, easily transportable dissolving films
Vaccines have become an indispensable medical tool that offer protection from an ever-increasing range of diseases, but these living strains of viruses need to be kept cool to be effective. This is a real problem when it comes to distributing them to remote or developing areas, but a new delivery method from scientists at University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) could give these efforts a huge boost, preserving the live elements in a lightweight film without the need for refrigeration.
The trouble that comes from getting vaccines to remote regions and preserving them for safe use are such that research groups around the world are working to overcome them. Some promising solutions that could help save millions of lives include storing them in sugary gels, freeze-drying them so they can be stored at room temperature and putting them in a state of suspended animation. The government of Vanuatu is even looking into the use of drones to carry them over rough, unpaved terrain.
The thin film developed at UT Austin shapes as another exciting possibility. The scientists were able produce their novel vaccine delivery system cheaply and easily, taking inspiration from the way the DNA of some living things can be preserved for millions of years in amber. The team sought to replicate these storage abilities in a substance resembling hard candy, made up of different sugars and salts to form an amber-like material.
It took more than 450 attempts, with the team's candy-like materials often killing the viruses or crystallizing them during storage, making them unfit for use. Finally, they landed on a recipe that does the job, with the virus able to be loaded into the candy-like material and housed between protective layers that can be peeled off when it's time for use.
“It is essentially a plug and play platform,” said Maria A. Croyle who led the research. “Once we know the specific qualities of a vaccine candidate, we can adapt the film’s components to meet those requirements, suspending and sealing it within the film matrix in a way that allows it to withstand extreme temperature changes and release the vaccine components in a precise and controlled manner.”
The team says it has demonstrated the ability of the delivery system to carry Ebola vaccines and a vaccine for influenza A at a proof-of-concept level, and believe it could be used for other vaccines as well, including – when it's developed – COVID-19.
In addition to its low-cost, the system is around one-thousandth the size of traditional vaccine vials and needs no refrigeration either during transport of the administration. The film can be taken orally, and rapidly dissolves to leave no trace. If it makes its way into widespread use, it could help avoid the millions of syringes, vials, packaging and other waste that goes with traditional vaccination methods.
The film developed by the team has been licensed by a new startup that will now work with large pharmaceutical company AskBio to commercialize the technology.
“We are excited to partner with AskBio to develop Maria’s platform technology,” said Erin Overstreet, director of licensing in UT Austin’s Office of Technology Commercialization. “We believe the technology is poised to help patients with rare diseases, with the potential to help many other patients as well, and look forward to seeing the technology benefit the public.”
The research was published in the journal Science Advances.