Vaccines without needles?

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

January 24th, 2014

Gary Finnegan

‘Imagine if vaccines could be delivered painlessly. An Australian engineer believes new technology could hold the answer. ’

Mark Kendall has developed a nanopatch which uses tiny powder-coated spikes to deliver a dose of vaccine.

Simply apply a small patch to the skin for around one minute and remove it. No syringe, no injection, no pain.

What’s more, Kendall – in an excellent new TED talk – says the nanopatch could make vaccines more effective, safer and cheaper.
The technology works in animal tests and is now being tested in humans but there is a long way to go before it is widely available.

Read: How are vaccines developed?

As he points out, the current way of delivering vaccines, through a syringe and needle, was a major innovation when it was invented. The trouble is that it was invested 160 years ago and there has been no real progress since then.

“Many of us don’t like the needle and syringe,” says Kendall. “However, 20% of the population actually have a needle phobia.”

If this fear prevents even a small portion of the population from being vaccinated, it could stand in the way of achieving herd immunity – essential for protecting those who are too young or too sick to be vaccinated.

Watch: What is Herd Immunity?

But the potential benefits of the nanopatch do not end there. If this new way of delivering vaccines can offer better immune responses, it could make it easier to develop effective vaccines against HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and more.

And it gets better still. Because the nanopatch is covered with a dry powder (rather than a liquid), transportation is easier. Vaccines are currently transported in a ‘cold chain’, meaning they must be kept at a stable temperature while in transit.

Keeping vaccines cool when bringing them to rural areas in developing countries can prove especially challenging but Kendall says the solution may already be at hand.

Read: Vaccine delivery: the next grand challenge

It may be early days for the nanopatch – and many exciting breakthroughs have fallen at one of the many hurdles en route to market – but if its promise is realised, we are looking at a giant leap forward which could revolutionise public health.

“This could potentially change the world of vaccinations. But we still have a very long way to go,” says Kendall.

However, it’s not the only needle-free option under development. There is early-stage research on an oral flu vaccine and some countries have already introduced nasal spray flu vaccines for children.

For the time being though, it looks like vaccines will most frequently be delivered by injection – a small price to pay for protection from disease.