6 technologies aiding vaccine development
Unsurprisingly, vaccines have taken center stage this year as researchers continue to work to find immunizations for COVID-19.
Here are six of the critical technologies — from 3D printing to telemedicine — spurring progress on those and other vaccination development efforts.
1. 3D Printing
The fear of needles often makes people hesitant to get vaccinated. However, researchers found a workaround by creating a 3D-printed patch to handle vaccine delivery. They said the T-cell and antigen-specific antibody response was 50 times greater than injections given subcutaneously.
“In developing this technology, we hope to set the foundation for even more rapid global development of vaccines, at lower doses, in a pain- and anxiety-free manner,” said Joseph M. DeSimone, the lead author of a paper about the work.
The team also believes they could customize the patches for different vaccines against diseases ranging from influenza to hepatitis.
2. Injectable Hydrogel
Vaccine development for diseases like HIV-1 and malaria has not been as successful as other efforts. Experts believe part of the reason lies with the timing of the antigens — substances that make the body create antibodies against them — and adjuvants — ingredients added to many vaccines to stimulate or modulate the immune response.
However, scientists have developed a hydrogel delivered by injection that triggers a sustained release of vaccine ingredients. Tests in rodents indicated that it caused more potent, higher quality and longer-lasting immune system reactions.
When antigen exposure happens naturally in humans, it generally occurs across two to three weeks. However, that process only persists for a day or two in a vaccinated person. Mixing this new compound with vaccines could make the response more in line with natural exposure, boosting immunity in the process.
3. Purified Water Tech
When people hear about new vaccines in production, they often want to know details about their ingredients. Although all vaccinations must pass safety and effectiveness tests before mass public distribution, they’re like many other products in that some elements can cause allergic reactions. That’s why it’s always strongly recommended that people get advice from their doctors before receiving any vaccines.
However, many individuals don’t realize that water is one of the most prevalent ingredients in vaccines. Since the pharmaceutical industry is so tightly regulated, that liquid must be highly purified and meet minimum standards before being used in manufacturing. One water purification brand produces more than 25 million gallons for the industry every day.
This example shows the diversity of companies necessary to help with vaccine production. People usually think of the scientists that rightfully get so much attention in the media, but it’s important to remember that many other parties make vaccines possible, too.
4. Computer Modeling
Computer models help researchers look at different variables that could affect vaccine efficacy before testing them in laboratories. While investigating ways to curb the COVID-19 pandemic with vaccines, people showed particular interest in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. That distinctive feature protrudes from the surface of the virus and enables it to infect cells.
In one recent effort, scientists used a dynamic computer model to uncover more of the spike protein’s vulnerabilities. They think this information could be valuable when creating new vaccines. Although many static models exist, they don’t capture how the spike protein and the sugar molecules coating it moves.
The sugar molecules, called glycans, act as shields to protect the spike protein from the immune system. However, the computer model showed the scientists which parts have the lowest level of protection. Those details could make new vaccines against COVID-19 maximally effective, especially since many of the recent virus mutations concern the spike protein.
Scientists are continually interested in how viruses infect cells. Getting that foundational knowledge helps them make headway in creating new vaccines to keep people safe from deadly diseases. A team in Singapore invented a laser-based device to help them learn more.
They say the light acts as “tweezers,” allowing them to move a virus and target a particular part of a cell. The device also only takes a minute to separate damaged or incomplete viruses.
The researchers tested their gadget on adenoviruses and plan to see how it works on coronaviruses, too. The device is only about the size of a thumbnail, but it shoots a highly targeted laser beam to manipulate viruses.
Telemedicine proved instrumental during the pandemic in helping providers continue to treat patients safely. It’s also showing its worth during clinical trials.
Recruitment for those studies is often difficult because people dislike the ongoing travel to their medical checkups and check-ins with coordinators. However, there’s a growing trend of using telemedicine to conduct virtual visits so people can participate without leaving their homes.
This application of technology could span far beyond vaccine development, too. If people use wearable devices to record vital signs and other statistics during a drug investigation, those gadgets could catch things not picked up during an in-person visit.
Technology Spurs Medical Progress
These six examples show the vital role of technology in enabling new vaccines. As people hear about the possibilities, they must stay mindful of the tech that helped them happen.
Devin Partida writes about AI, apps and technology at ReHack.com, where she is Editor-in-Chief