Needle-Free Vaccines: Not Too Good To Be True!

Key Takeaways:
  • Needle-free vaccines are the latest in vaccine technology.
  • Delivery is painless via a patch applied to the skin, and these vaccines do not require cold storage like traditional inoculations.
  • Needle-free vaccines hold great promise for both the developed and developing world.

A Needle – perhaps not surprisingly, this is the single most significant barrier to vaccine compliance, both here in the US and in the developing world, where easy access to vaccines is desperately needed. Parents may avoid getting children vaccinated because they don’t want to cause pain from a needle.  Outside of the developed world, needles pose a problem as well: traditional vaccine material, delivered via a shot, must be kept cold, making it difficult to deliver this life-saving substance in developing countries that lack consistent refrigeration facilities. The manifold benefits of vaccination and the risks of not getting immunized against contagious diseases have spurred the development of new, needle-free technology to deliver effective inoculations. This innovative technology offers dual benefits: it allows parents to overcome their trepidation of vaccination, and it mitigates infrastructure concerns related to vaccine delivery.

The Technology Behind Needle Free Vaccines

How does this vaccine technology work? It starts with a tiny disk with short, sharp projections called microneedles that are arrayed across the circle. The microneedles are composed of sugars that act as an agent to preserve the vaccine inside. Light pressure is applied to the disk’s flat side, and, after five minutes, the vaccine is delivered into the skin as the microneedles dissolve. The dendritic cells within the skin envelop the vaccine material and lead it to the antibody producing cells of the immune system.

Benefits of Needle-Free Vaccinations

This technology sounds almost too good to be true, and, indeed, it has multiple benefits. If you have ever fought to hold a child still during a traditional immunization or have had to drag your child into the doctor’s office when the prospect of a shot looms, this needle-free technology will provide a welcome relief.  In resource-poor areas, however, the benefits of this technology are even more extensive.

Needle-free vaccinations require a smaller dose of the vaccine to achieve effective inoculation, meaning that this type of immunization is ideal in times of a vaccine shortage. Most importantly, a needle-free vaccine can be used in warm environments and does not require refrigeration. This fact makes the technology incredibly useful in developing areas of the world and for use in the field during an emergency situation; traditional vaccines lose their effectiveness when they are not kept cold. Finally, with nothing sharp to dispose of, these vaccines are also safer for healthcare workers who will no longer have to worry about inadvertent disease transmission from used needles.

Next Steps in the Development of Needle-Free Vaccination Technology

An additional application of this technology involves DNA vaccine patches. In this application, microneedles, as described above, insert strands of DNA that hold the code for a virus or a protein directly into the body’s cells. The body senses this protein is foreign and mounts an immune defense, resulting in the body building up immunity to disease. DNA patches also offer a way to vaccinate that is easy and as painless as applying a stick-on bandage. These new vaccinations are also stable at room temperature, making them ideal for use in the developing world since there is no need for refrigeration equipment or special storage concerns. Human trials for these vaccines are unfortunately still about a decade away, but significant research and funding is underway.

Funding and the Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been a key donor in this innovation. The Foundation funded a research team located at King’s College in London to develop the needle-free vaccine technology and provided facilities and supplies used during the research and development project.

Future Applications

Needle-less technology holds great promise – even beyond public health and vaccines. Researchers are investigating how to use the needle-less technology to deliver treatments for diabetes, chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, local anesthetics, migraine medications, and even anti-aging skin treatments. Caring for chronic medical conditions, as well as vaccine delivery, may soon get much easier!

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