A revolutionary method for delivering vaccine protection against infectious disease, especially in developing regions, is achieving spectacular results in lab trials carried out for the World Health Organization (WHO).

The ‘nanopatch’, invented by Rolex laureate and medical engineer Mark Kendall, has delivered a 40-fold improvement in vaccine dose rates, combined with an eye-catching 100 per cent rate of protection using a new polio vaccine. The trials, carried out in lab animals, are one step away from human clinical trials.

The war against polio is all-but won, with no new cases seen worldwide since 2012. However, the virus that causes it is still alive and deadly, and WHO is calling for a global effort to finally stamp it out through a comprehensive vaccination campaign. This involves the injection of an inactivated polio vaccine as well as administration of oral vaccines in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the only region on Earth where the polio virus is still endemic.

In 2003, while researching hypersonics at Oxford University, Australian researcher Mark Kendall conceived the idea of using a nanopatch – a tiny square of material covered with microscopic silicon spikes coated in dry vaccine – to deliver vaccines instead of the conventional (and costly) needle method.  The technique works so well because it engages directly with a layer of special cells just beneath the skin, provoking a much stronger immune response than does injection into muscle.

Field trials

Using funds from his Rolex Award, Mark ran field trials of the application technology in Papua New Guinea which showed its potential to deliver cheap, effective vaccine protection in remote areas of the world where medical skills are sparse and delivery of conventional vaccines difficult. His nanopatch system will enable ordinary people to vaccinate themselves, simply, painlessly and reliably.

The Rolex Award led to a TEDGlobal presentation and eventually caught the eye of the World Health Organization in its quest for an effective method to stamp out polio forever. WHO and America’s Centers for Disease Control promptly commissioned Kendall to carry out rat trials using the latest intramuscular vaccine, with dramatic results.

The nanopatch protected all the animals vaccinated, using a fraction of the amount of vaccine that would be needed for needle delivery. “This level of dose reduction (1/40th of a full dose) is unprecedented for poliovirus vaccine delivery. The ease of administration coupled with the dose reduction observed in this study points to the Nanopatch as a potential tool for facilitating inexpensive IPV for mass vaccination campaigns,” Kendall reported to the medical world.

More importantly, it takes the technology a big step closer to use in humans: “If we pin our ears back, we may be able to go to clinical trials in 2017,” he says.

There are two parts to these trials, Kendall cautions. The first is to prove that the nanopatch can protect humans as well or better than do needle vaccines. The second, is to show that the nanopatch and its applicator can be mass produced and used at a cost lower than needle vaccination by skilled medical staff.

While the latest tests specifically used an inactivated polio vaccine, Kendall says his company Vaxxas has already carried out research into nanopatch delivery of other types of vaccine for different diseases. These remain subject to commercial confidentiality at this stage.

The path from initial concept to commercial adoption is usually long and slow – 15 to 20 years is the rule in the medical sphere – but Kendall remains optimistic that nanopatches will be saving and protecting human lives, especially in the developing world, by early in the coming decade.

“I’d like to recognize the catalytic role played by the Rolex Award in getting the technology to this advanced stage,” he says. “It underpinned our work in Papua New Guinea, and it gave the idea a huge profile which led ultimately to the trial funded by the WHO. It’s pretty unlikely we’d be this far along without it.”

Kendall speaks too of the fruitful friendships and idea-sharing with other Rolex Laureates – notably whale shark researcher Brad Norman and antibiotic developer Hosam Zowawi. “It’s a real pleasure to work with Rolex. It yields many useful interactions with innovators from other fields,” he says.

Learn more about Mark Kendall

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