Researchers from the University of Washington have created a vaccine with the potential to make on-demand vaccination cheaper and quicker, using engineered nanoparticles. Tests with mice show definite promise for the technology's use on humans.

A vaccine is essentially a biological preparation containing elements that resemble the disease it is designed to inoculate against. This has the effect of teaching the body to recognize the harmful foreign agent, and to allow the body's immune system to efficiently destroy it. This information is stored by the body and creates an immunity to future exposure to the disease.

Under the current distribution system, a vaccine must be created en mass at a production facility far from the infection site. The process of transporting large quantities of a vaccine to the required destination is extremely expensive, with the vaccines requiring constant refrigeration and often having a short lifespan.

Looking past the sheer cost of the transportation, even in today's shrinking world of high speed travel, the current system is proving to be inadequate in matching the planet's growing population, with many in the infected areas dying before the vaccine can arrive.

The research, funded by the Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, hopes to revolutionize the current system by creating on-the-spot life-saving vaccines.

The vaccine would work by injecting nanoparticles created with an engineered protein designed to mimic infection, which then binds with calcium phosphate. In an experiment with the nanoparticles that was conducted on mice, it was found that eight months after the injection of nanoparticles, laboratory mice who contracted a disease showed three times the number of protective T-cells than mice who had been injected with the protein without the nanoparticles.

The nanoparticles are roughly 1,000 times smaller than a human hair – inset represents the engineered proteins covering the nanoparticles' surface (Photo: University of Washington)

The nanoparticles operate by transporting the protein mimicking the infection to lymph nodes where the nanoparticles come into contact with dendritic cells. The dendritic cell essentially acts as a messenger between a person's innate and adaptive immune system, informing the body's T cells that the foreign body must be destroyed both now, and in the future.

“We’re really excited about this technology because it makes it possible to produce a vaccine on the spot," said François Baneyx, a professor of chemical engineering at the university. "For instance, a field doctor could see the beginnings of an epidemic, make vaccine doses right away, and blanket vaccinate the entire population in the affected area to prevent the spread of an epidemic.”

The ability to create an on-the-spot vaccine using the nanoparticles has the potential to save many lives in developing countries, while cutting down on the costs of transportation and refrigeration usually inherent in vaccination. However Baneyx cautioned that whilst the laboratory tests on mice had yielded promising results, testing had not yet begun on humans.

View gallery - 2 images