Ever since the first syringe was developed and patented more than 170 years ago, it has been the bane of needle-fearing patients. Doctors, too, have their issues with needle-based vaccinations, such as the health risk to patients due to reused needles and the fact that liquid vaccines must be stored in refrigerated places to keep their potency. But a new technology called nanopatch, developed at the University of Queensland and now in the early stages of commercialization by a new company called Vaxxas, aims to solve many of these issues and bring immunizations from the 19th to the 21st century.

Current Issues

The use of needles and syringes to deliver medications and vaccines stretches back almost two hundred years, and very little has been done to improve the technology. Recently developments have included using disposable syringes, as opposed to reusable glass and stainless steel ones, and safety syringes, which offer low risk of accidental needle sticks (which cause 1.3 million early deaths yearly) by using a retractable needle. Compounding these issues is the fact that close to 20 percent of people have an innate fear of needles.

The Technology

Dr. Mark Kendall of the University of Queensland in Australia and his research group have developed a small nanopatch that delivers vaccines through a small patch on the skin. This piece of advanced technology has more than 20,000 microprojections on a piece of silicone that is one centimeter squared, or smaller than a typical stamp. These small rods are so small that the nervous system cannot detect them penetrating the skin, so there is no pain involved in the application.

These nanoscale protrusions reach deeper than the superficial layers of the skin, and because the tips are coated with vaccine material, it is delivered directly to immune cells below the skin. Immune cells in the skin allow the vaccine to garner a stronger response than typical vaccines that are injected into the muscle of the arm. Potent cells that eat up the vaccine's biological material, or antigen, reside in the skin. These cells in turn migrate to lymph nodes to activate other immune cells to confer long-lasting immunity.

The nanopatch is far smaller than a needle that would deliver a similar amount of vaccination potency.

Adjuvants, which are chemicals added to vaccines that enhance the immune response, have been targeted as a potential health risk, even though there is no scientific evidence of this. Nanopatch technology would allow for a significant reduction in the amount of adjuvant used in vaccines, relying more heavily on the biological material rather than added chemicals to vaccinate. The amount of biological material needed to vaccinate someone would be reduced by more than 100 fold, effectively increasing stockpiles of vaccines overnight.

One of the largest benefits of this new technology is that it does not require a liquid vaccine. Because the patches come precoated with the vaccine material, they are dry and require no refrigeration. The patches have been shown to be stable at 73°F (23°C ) for over a year, which is important in much of the developing world where refrigeration is scarce and temperatures are high.

Furthermore, the nanopatch would reduce the price of vaccinations. Kendall has said that because the injection uses less biological vaccination material, "a vaccine that had cost $10 can be brought down to just 10 cents, which is very important in the developing world."

Current Testing

Kendall is currently testing the new method of vaccination in people after successful animal trials. The company is pursuing a vaccination campaign against the human papillomavirus (HPV) in Papua New Guinea, which has one of the highest rates of HPV in the world.

Painless Vaccinations from The University of Queensland on Vimeo.