A new 3-D printed microtechnology could revolutionize how we give vaccinations.
But its future in the United States is uncertain.
Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — with support from the Gates Foundation — have developed a novel way to deliver multiple vaccinations at once.
This could potentially cut down on the number of doctors’ visits children need.
The technology is of particular importance to areas in the developing world where doctors’ visits are infrequent or patient compliance is low.
How the vaccine works
The vaccine uses microparticles that resemble tiny coffee cups. The microparticles are each about the size of a grain of fine sand.
They are individually filled with different vaccines.
Each “cup” is fabricated using a 3-D printing technique on a glass slide, filled, and then heat sealed with a lid.
The process involves biodegradable polymers such as PLGA, which is already widely used in medical and dental practice in the form of sutures.
The microparticles are injected into the bloodstream and designed to dissolve at various times, releasing medicine or antibodies held inside the cup.
“We are very excited about this work because, for the first time, we can create a library of tiny, encased vaccine particles, each programmed to release at a precise, predictable time, so that people could potentially receive a single injection that, in effect, would have multiple boosters already built into it,” Robert Langer, ScD, a chemical engineer and professor at MIT, said in a press release.
The polymers used for the cups could be designed to dissolve after one day, or up to several years, Ana Jaklenec, PhD, one of the MIT researchers, told Healthline.
That means that someday a child may only need a single injection filled with microparticles, each one precisely timed to deliver booster shots throughout childhood.
While the focus of the research thus far has been on childhood vaccination, Jaklenec said the applications for such a technology could be even more far-reaching.
Any drug requiring multiple injections could feasibly use microparticles as a solution. This could range from chemotherapy to antibody delivery.
The technology could also have a significant impact on patient compliance. It could be a “set it and forget it” mentality: When a patient leaves their doctor’s office, whatever medication they need to take is safely timed to go off inside their body.
“[Surgeons] are interested in something that they can just put in during the procedure that they know is going to release at the right time, and they don’t have to worry about calling the patient and making sure they are taking the drug,” said Jaklenec.
Obstacles in the United States
Yet for all its potential, particularly in developing countries, others are skeptical how this technology could fit into the complex world of vaccine scheduling in the United States.
“I think we’re a long way off from something like this being implemented in the U.S.,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, an associate professor of pediatrics-infectious disease at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “You’d have to be able to show not only that the delivery device works, but that it gives you the same immune response as our same schedule that we know works.”
The technology must first be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in humans. Then, organizations such as the AAP and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer their own recommendations for vaccine scheduling.
These groups are usually in agreement with one another, but their recommendations can differ at times.
“It would be a very large paradigm shift in terms of the way vaccines are delivered in the U.S.,” O’Leary told Healthline. “There is an awful lot of infrastructure around how we deliver vaccines in the U.S. For the most part, the system works well.”
Even after approval, this kind of potentially revolutionary technology would send shockwaves through healthcare systems.
O’Leary said nurses and doctors would need to be retrained, inventory at clinics and hospitals would need to change, and most importantly, frequency of doctors’ visits for children would certainly go down.
Childhood vaccinations are typically timed in unison with wellness checkups.
“An unforeseen consequence of using a device [like this], many parents come in primarily for the vaccines and the vaccines are already done so they might be missing out on other important care that is provided during the wellness visits,” said Dr. O’Leary.
O’Leary agrees that in developing countries, with a less rigid healthcare infrastructure, this technology could be beneficial.
He also sees its potential value in the United States, despite its many prospective barriers.
“The AAP is very supportive of anything that is going to decrease barriers to vaccination. So, in the long run if this is something that can safely and effectively and inexpensively vaccinate, then it is potentially a great thing,” he said.
The question of how and when it will make it to market, however, is still largely unknown. The technology will still require substantial testing before it can make its debut in the United States.
“I think eventually one or more of these technologies will take the place of the current system,” said O’Leary. “Part of that forward progress is the development of new delivery technologies.”
“This is the future, but I can’t tell you if it’s the future in 10 years or 50 years,” he added.