Bill Gates’ philanthropic foundation funds research into a needle-free vaccination method using molds made of sugar, a technology he hopes could help patients in areas that need it most.

In his first appearance on The Colbert Report last week, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates made a bold prediction: “Polio was down to 250 cases last year in the entire world. In the next six years we’ll get it down to zero and it’ll become the second disease to ever be eradicated.” Gates is putting his money where his mouth is by financing cutting-edge vaccination programs in the areas hardest hit by infectious disease.

Live vaccines—which contain active viruses or bacteria—are notoriously hard to deliver in resource-deprived areas because they must be continually refrigerated to keep them viable. However, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers at King’s College London have found a way to administer a dried live vaccine directly to the skin—without needles—that remains effective at room temperature.

Besides solving the problem of refrigeration, needle-less vaccine delivery eliminates a host of other issues: the pain of injections and fear of needles that keep some people from being immunized, the risk of needle contamination with blood-borne illnesses like HIV, and the cost of purchasing many thousands of sterilized hypodermic needles.

If the technology becomes commonplace, it could also better the lives of millions who use needles every day to check their blood sugar levels, administer insulin, and inject anti-inflammatory drugs. In fact, clinical trials of a peptide-based vaccine for type 1 diabetes, led by Professor Mark Peakman of King’s College London, dovetail with these efforts to find better, less painful ways to administer life-saving drugs.

The groundbreaking research on room-temperature vaccine delivery was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mary Poppins says “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” but in this case, the sweet stuff helps the drug get under your skin.

The King’s College team dried an experimental live HIV vaccine in sugar (sucrose), and then used a specialized mold to shape the concoction into a microneedle array—a small disc with several tiny points that dissolve when imbedded in the skin.

“Current licensed vaccines for humans are mostly injected into muscle or into the deeper fatty layer of the skin, which can be quite painful,” said Dr. Linda Klavinskis, lead study author and a researcher in the Department of Immunobiology at King’s College London. “We anticipate that the shallow penetration of the sugar needles, simply dissolving into the upper layer of the skin, should be more patient friendly.”

Thus far, the technique has only been tested on mice, but the results are more than promising. Researchers were able to identify, for the first time, a group of cells in the skin that can detect this type of vaccine and put the body’s immune system on alert.

With the help of these specialized cells, the new, room-temperature vaccine produced the same immune response as traditional liquid medicine stored in a freezer and injected with a needle.

Klavinskis says that before the sugar “micro-needle” technique reaches consumers, her team will need to scale-up their production, file for and conduct clinical trials on human subjects, and seek approval from agencies like the FDA.

In the meanwhile:

  • Follow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) immunization schedule for yourself and your children to keep you safe and to stop the spread of disease.
  • Always get a seasonal flu shot, even if you’re pregnant.
  • If you’re diabetic, carefully follow the blood glucose monitoring and insulin regiment prescribed by your doctor.