Feb. 11, 2013 at 8:50 PM ET
Vaccines could be kept for longer and administered more easily in the next few years, if research at King's College London pans out. The delivery method uses a dried vaccine and micro-needles made, amazingly, out of sugar.
It's not quite a candy-coated hypodermic, but that's actually pretty close. The researchers, led by Dr. Linda Klavinskis, were attempting to solve two problems. First, hypodermic delivery can be painful and requires some expertise. Second, keeping vaccines alive and cold is difficult, especially in places like rural Africa, where such help is desperately needed.
As it turned out, there was one solution for both problems: sugar. The team managed to preserve a vaccine dose by drying it in sugar, and then form that sugar into a set of microneedles. The end result is a tiny disc covered in microscopic spikes that penetrate the skin painlessly and dissolve, delivering the vaccine instantly.
It has only been tested on mice so far, but there doesn't seem to be any reason why the mechanism shouldn't work on humans. Further testing will be required, but the potential is huge: These little vaccine patches would stay viable for much longer and in a greater range of temperatures, meaning they could be transported easily, air-dropped or simply mailed to anyone who needs them. No expertise necessary to administer.
There are other efforts to modernize the science of vaccine delivery, including other dissolving patches. Several were described a few months ago in this NBC News story.
The multi-institutional research project was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has contributed immensely to the immunization and vaccination effort worldwide. Gates himself considers it the foundation's most important work, as he explained in an online Q&A on Reddit Monday.
The paper describing the technique was published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More information can be found at the King's College London website, and in the video below.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.