Math and Science

Advanced Vaccines and Coffee Cups

Healthcare advances now occur at an incredible rate and one of the most exciting and impactful fields of medical development is that of vaccines. This is because preventing people from getting a disease is the easiest way to stop the spread of pathogens that can rip through whole cities and countries. Recently, engineers at MIT have designed a 3-D printed device to deliver many doses of vaccines in one simple injection [1]. The engineers likened the device, which comes in the form of a microparticle, to a “small coffee cup” that could be filled with the vaccine. The material holding the vaccine is designed to degrade at a certain time to make sure that the dose is not delivered in a harmful way to the recipient. Additionally, many vaccines that require boosters (additional doses delivered at a separate date) such as measles and HPV, could have their boosters given in the initial shot. The microparticles carrying the boosters would be designed to dissolve into the recipient’s system at various prescribed dates.

The “cups” that deliver the vaccines are made of “PLGA, a biocompatible polymer” which, as the designers point out, has already been cleared by the FDA to be used for implants and prosthetics. Trials of the technology were performed in mice to test the days that could pass without leakage of the vaccine into the bloodstream of the animal. In the trials, it was found that the particles went up to 41 days without dissolving (this is not to say that the particles are limited in any way to 41 days before leaking). Moreover, the tests showed that the immune response that the vaccine caused, was the response that would have been expected if the animal had been given two double dosage conventional vaccines.

This technology will not only help deliver more effective vaccines to people in developed countries, but it will also facilitate medical aid. A major obstacle to delivering medical aid to countries that do not have developed infrastructure, particularly power grids, is the refrigeration and proper storage of vaccines until they can be given. While this technology doesn’t improve the power infrastructure of countries, reducing the number of vaccines that need to be transported can make aid more viable to deliver in terms of cost. It is not a coincidence that part of this project was prompted by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The implications of this technology do not end with the viability of medical aid. There is a growing movement in the United States of people that refuse to receive vaccines themselves and/or refuse to get their children vaccinated. I am not writing this to disprove the claims of this movement, but rather I want to address their concerns in light of this new development. One of the main concerns of this movement that has been voiced by prominent figures such as Jenny McCarthy is “too many, too soon.” This phrase is meant to signify the fears that children receive a lot of vaccines very early in their life and the possibility that this is linked to diseases such as autism. While this new technology wouldn’t change the number of vaccines injected at once, it could alter the timing of the medicine being delivered to the bloodstream. Vaccines could be altered to accommodate a prolonged schedule and delay the boosters even further.

Changing the way the world gives vaccines is one of the best ways to entirely change the desperate need for other healthcare services. In developed countries, this means making it easier and less overwhelming for children to be vaccinated for diseases such as measles. In the developing world, decreasing the need for healthcare via vaccines requires a significant lowering of the cost delivering such important aid. Thanks to advances in healthcare, all of that is being made possible with a single injection of a “coffee cup.”