As if soap bubbles don't spread enough happiness on their own, scientists have discovered a way of coating them in biomolecules with a view to treating viruses, cancer and other diseases. The technology has been developed at the University of Maryland, where researchers devised a method of tricking the body into mistaking the bubbles for harmful cells, triggering an immune response and opening up new possibilities in the delivery of drugs and vaccines.

The customized bubbles, which the researchers refer to as "functionalized catanionic surfactant vesicles", are made using a combination of soap-like components that transform into capsules when mixed together. They say that this solution has significant advantages over other vaccine-carrying vehicles on the market as they form more quickly, last much longer and are cheaper to produce.

"We have created a technology platform that allows us to make drug and vaccine delivery vehicles that have previously been very difficult to prepare," says Phillip DeShong, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland. "If someone provides us with an antigen, it is possible for us to formulate it into a vaccine, purify it and have 1,000 doses ready within 72 hours."

The strength of the approach lies in its diversity, made possible by the range of biomaterials that can be used to coat the outside of the bubbles. Different types of molecules will incite a different response from the body's immune system, which makes the solution a potential candidate for treating a range of conditions.

In using the bubbles to deliver vaccines, they are coated in antigens that cause the body to identify them as foreign objects. This kicks the body's immune system into action, breaking down the bubble and attacking the antigens on its surface, the idea being that other cells with these same antigens are then also destroyed as a consequence.

When it comes to carrying drugs, the bubbles are filled with medicine, such as that used to fight cancer, for example. The outside is tagged with a targeting agent that sees them drawn specifically toward cancer cells, the bubble then binding to the cells and releasing the drug. The researchers say that this method of targeting cancer cells could lead to lower doses and reduced side effects.

The researchers are currently carrying out further testing of the technology. They have four patents pending, with hopes of developing a legitimate method of preventing and treating a countless number diseases and viruses.

"In principle, there are thousands of viruses we could make vaccines against, there are thousands of bacterial infections we could make vaccines against, and there are thousands of drugs we could deliver in a targeted way into the body," says DeShong. "We’ve created a flexible platform with these decorated soap bubbles that should be able to make them all of them."

The team's