AUSTIN (KXAN) – A new vaccine distribution method, developed by researchers at the University of Texas in Austin, could mean no more needles when you get a vaccine. Inspired by DNA recovered from insects frozen in amber, just like the dinosaur DNA preserved in Jurassic Park, researchers have developed a way to deliver a vaccine through an edible film.
Researchers mixed vaccines with a sugar-based solution that forms in a hard candy, which essentially traps each particle of the vaccine in what researchers describe as a “zip lock bubble.” Essentially freezing the vaccine in the time.
According to UT Professor Maria Coyle, who led the team that developed the vaccine method, the vaccine does not need to be kept cool, is useable for several months and can be swallowed.
A COVID-19 vaccine could be delivered using this method, but first a vaccine must be approved that can prevent the disease. One of the advantages of the edible film is how easy it is to distribute as opposed to a traditional shot.
Professor Coyle says that five hundred doses of the vaccine can fit on a single sheet of edible film the size of printer paper. A stack of these vaccine sheets, slightly bigger than a ream of paper, could carry a million vaccines.
In 2007, Professor Coyle and her team at UT were tasked with creating a new delivery method for an Ebola vaccine. It had to be cheap and it couldn’t use needles. “We realized that 40% of the cost spent on a vaccine is in keeping it cold,” says Professor Coyle. Vaccines are freeze dried, plus they need to be kept cool during transport. Delivery of the drugs to rural areas meant paying for vehicles and facilities that could store the vaccines.
When it comes to needles, Professor Coyle says, “There’s actually data out there that says a lot of patients, who are the targets for a lot of vaccines, experience severe distress.” Needles also pose a significant risk to the environment, where proper disposal must occur, and to medical staff. A medical professional will stab themselves 4.7 times a year while doing an injection. The Philippines Measles Elimination Campaign, which focused on immunizing 18 million children in one month, generated 130,000 kg of sharp waste, that’s about 286,000 pounds.
There are some downsides to the new distribution method. Because of the size of the sheets, viruses that require a larger dose of a vaccine cannot fit on the sheet. Also, because this is new technology, the team is having to work with regulatory boards to figure out how to classify the vaccine sheets. “To be honest, it has taken a while for the industry to understand the technology and walk away from the idea of injections,” say Professor Coyle.
We might see these vaccines sooner than you’d think. Professor Coyle’s team is working with industrial partners now, but timing is everything. In order to best maximize the distribution, the team must select a tested and viable vaccine and partner with its producers before the vaccine is approved by the FDA. If the team waits until after a vaccine is approved, it will have to go through the approval process a second time, further delaying its release.