One topic that may or may not be on everyone’s minds at the moment: vaccines. You may think we’re either getting too many of them or not enough of them. Researchers from Stanford University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have their own thoughts on the topic, namely replacing injections with a “vaccine patch” that they found to trigger an immune response that is up to 50 times greater than traditional, needle-based vaccines.
One of the innovators behind the technology is none other than former Carbon CEO and founder Joseph M. DeSimone, who is also a professor of translational medicine and chemical engineering at Stanford University and professor emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill. DeSimone, with his fellow scientists, 3D printed microneedle patches that can be customized for a variety of vaccines, including COVID-19, as well as the flu, measles, hepatitis and more. To do so, the team relied on Carbon’s continuous light interface processing (CLIP) technology, a unique form of digital light processing 3D printing that allows for rapid, engineering-grade parts.
The vast majority of vaccines rely on taking a vaccine from a refrigerator or freezer before filling a syringe with the formula and injecting it into a person’s body. This necessitates both cold storage and trained professionals to administer them. In contrast, vaccine patches consist of microneedles coated with the vaccine that dissolve on into the skin. They don’t require special handling and can be self-administered.
Though microneedle patches have been experimented with in the past, they typically rely on the creation of a master template used to mold microneedles. 3D printing, obviously, offers greater flexibility and timelines.
Lead author Shaomin Tian, researcher in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the UNC School of Medicine, explained, “These issues, coupled with manufacturing challenges, have arguably held back the field of microneedles for vaccine delivery. “Our approach allows us to directly 3D print the microneedles which gives us lots of design latitude for making the best microneedles from a performance and cost point-of-view.”
According to the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the patch is not only easy to use and less invasive, but it resulted in T-cell and antigen-specific antibody response 50 times larger than injections in animals. It may even make it possible to apply smaller doses than traditional vaccines, while achieving the same immune response.
The researchers are now exploring the possibility of 3D printing mRNA vaccines like those used in the large-scale, live Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials currently taking place globally. Interestingly, University of North Carolina is also the home of Dr. Ralph Baric, who was involved in bat coronavirus research with the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In that study, the team received USAID funding from EcoHealth Alliance, a Department of Defense-backed organization that also participated in bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“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,” DeSimone said. “One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic is that innovation in science and technology can make or break a global response. Thankfully we have biotech and health care workers pushing the envelope for us all.”
If Carbon were able to assist in the commercialization of such a technology, it would certainly be a massive coup for the 3D printing unicorn. The company already played a lead role in the development of 3D printed nasal swabs that seemed to outperform traditionally made counterparts with the added benefit of rapid producibility. This could potentially upend the way that test swabs are manufactured. A similar disruption in vaccines could reap enormous profits in an industry that was worth some $35 billion before COVID-19.
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