While I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, my roommate was working on an inhalable measles vaccine. She talked about the day-to-day challenges of creating a dry powder, inhalable vaccine and sometimes came home with white dust on her clothes.
I knew that a cheap, durable vaccine like this would have an enormous impact on human health, so I went to see the process for myself.
I went to her professor Robert Sievers' spinoff company headquarters at Aktiv-Dry to see the power vaccine in production.
When I entered the lab, I put on proper protection for my eyes and face. The private tour began with how the powder was made, then Sievers showed me the novel device that would allow the person to inhale the vaccine, and ended with a sit down discussion of how inhalable vaccines would bring cheap treatments to the developing world.
First "supercritical" carbon dioxide is combined with a weakened form of the measles virus. This makes bubbles and droplets that are dried with a treatment of warm nitrogen. Once the vaccine is ready to be inhaled, the person sucks in through a soda bottle sized opening to get a dose of the vaccine from the cylindrical plastic sack.
The device is called Carbon Dioxide Assisted Nebulization with a Bubble Dryer (CAN-BD) and allows patients to inhale the vaccine, so the powder mix is sent straight into their lungs. This device is key to bypassing the need for needles.
In a statement, CU-Boulder chemistry and biochemistry Professor Robert Sievers says:
"Clinical trials are the next vital step in making this vaccine widely available," he said.
"One of our primary goals of this project is to get rid of needles and syringes, because they frighten some people, they hurt, they can transmit diseases and there are issues with needle disposal," he said. With the new technology, the inhaled powder is sent directly into the lungs, a good target since measles attacks through the respiratory tract, said Sievers. "A person taking a deep breath from the sack is effectively vaccinated."
Phase One human clinical trials will take place in Pune, India this summer — where 180 people will test the vaccine. With a price tag of 10 cents for the device and 17 cents for the dose, it is comparable to the cost of the injectable form of the vaccine. Measles kills 164,000 children each year, with the majority of the cases occurring in India.
And if successful, the inhalable vaccine method could be used develop other vaccines for diseases such as tuberculosis and cervical cancer. Sievers wants to lower the cost HPV injectable vaccines from $300 to something more affordable for developing nations.
Sievers had a grand vision in 2005 when I met him. It's nice to see his technology making its way out of the lab and into clinical trials.
Like any good scientist, he is trying out other delivery methods as well. His team is creating a mint loaded with a vaccine, hoping that delivering vaccines could be as easy as handing out Mentos.
He's not alone in his endeavor of creating alternatives to needles. For instance, Australian scientists have created a postage-sized patch that can deliver vaccines through the skin.