Bright ideas: Vaccinations without the needlework

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01 October 2012

An Australian researcher has invented a revolutionary non-invasive way to inoculate against life-threatening diseases.

Professor Mark Kendall’s early ambition was to be a fighter pilot, but a twist of fate saw him land in an entirely different field. It’s equally enthralling, but the impact is likely to be far larger. A biomedical engineer, Kendall looks set to revolutionise the delivery of vaccines with the Nanopatch, a much less-invasive technology than the traditional hypodermic needle and syringe “jabs” that have been extending the human lifespan for nearly 160 years.
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The Nanopatch is a 1cm square silicon wafer with 20,000 invisible, vaccine-coated micro-projections that can painlessly push through the skin’s outer layer to epidermis and dermis layers rich with immune cells. Studies in animal models show it’s a more effective delivery method than the needle-and-syringe method, which delivers mostly to muscle tissues with comparatively few immune cells. Nanopatch needs just 1/100th of the amount of vaccine used in a typical needle-administered dose, which means the new delivery style would be much cheaper, as well as make the experience less stressful for the needle-phobic. It travels well, too. Nanopatch’s dry-coated vaccines are thermo-stable, requiring no refrigeration. Plus, because the Nanopatch process does not draw blood, the risk of infection is considerably reduced.

It’s a breakthrough that promises to unburden health systems, perhaps even bypassing trained practitioners for its delivery. It is conceivable that an influenza pandemic, for example, could be managed with a government mail-out of Nanopatches for self-application. In developing nations, widespread diseases including malaria, tuberculosis and HIV might be similarly treated. And in their wake: Herpes Simplex Virus 2 (HSV-2), Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), the tropical chikungunya virus and West Nile virus.

With a 15-strong team – and Kendall emphasises that this is very much a team effort – since joining the Australian  Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) at the University of Queensland in 2006, Kendall has been creating and researching the Nanopatch. In August 2011, with $15m backing from a consortium of Australian and US venture capital investors, he co-founded the Brisbane-based company Vaxxas Research and Development, to take Nanopatch to human clinical trials and develop the product.

Vaxxas resides largely within the company incubator space at the University of Queensland, the launching pad for the professor’s early career. After failing to gain entry to train as an RAAF pilot, Kendall, between 1990 and 1998, undertook a mechanical engineering degree and a PhD “on rockets” (hypervelocity aerodynamics) there. Then, at a conference, he met an Oxford University delegate who had an idea to employ hand-held devices using rocket technology to fire vaccines into skin. “He asked me if I was interested in working in space,” says Kendall. “I thought, ‘that sounds like fun!’”

Over the next eight years as a lecturer and researcher at Oxford University, Kendall had the opportunity to mingle with some of the world’s best immunologists, and was part of the effort to pioneer the “gene gun” technology, which, in 2006, was sold for $400m to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

It was during a particularly boring conference presentation back in Sydney, when he had his eureka moment. “My brain just started doing its thing,” he says. And the idea for the Nanopatch was born.

The Nanopatch has been tested to great effect on mice and, more recently, ferrets, which make “excellent models” for the team’s most commonly used test antigen for the influenza virus because, as Kendall reports, “they mirror human flu physiological symptoms – they sneeze.”
In late 2007, a research colleague called with news of a study showing the Nanopatch outstripped any other device, including the old gene gun technology Kendall had helped to develop, and was 10 times more effective than its nearest competitor.

The aim of Vaxxas now is to show that the technology works in humans through clinical trials over the next couple of years. Meanwhile, there’s much to be done, including locking down the design of the device and securing approval from regulatory authorities. “As part of this we have to make the device to a required standard,” he says. Also on the to-do-list is exploring low-cost mass production of the patches, which are created using an etching technique similar to that used to make computer chips.

Earlier this year, Kendall was one of five people, from a global field of 3500 applicants, to be named a Rolex Laureate. In recognition of his “pioneering efforts to expand knowledge and improve human life”, the prestige watch company awarded him $100,000. Kendall has allocated the funds for “usability” trials in Papua New Guinea. “Healthcare workers in the developing world will test the application of the Nanopatch – without vaccine – to see how it works in the field.” The results will influence any refinement of the design needed and assess the use of a spring-loaded applicator. But the Nanopatch is probably still five to 10 years away from being a commercial reality.

“Ultimately, I see the Nanopatch as a way of improving the reach of vaccines – and that can mean many things,” says Kendall. “There’s the chance to make existing vaccines work better and more cheaply in the shorter term. One example is Gardasil, the vaccine for HPV [against cervical cancer] invented by Professor Ian Frazer (also at UQ), which is highly effective, but very expensive to make. A large number of people in the developing world have very limited access to it. If we can drop the cost by using a smaller dose with the Nanopatch, that would be a game-changer. In the longer term we could help get ‘new’ vaccines over the line for malaria, HIV and tuberculosis – as vaccines developed for these, so far, have not been fully effective.”

The boy who dreamed of being a fighter pilot is certainly flying high.

Source Qantas The Australian Way October 2012

Words: Deborah Tarrant, photography: Richard Whitfield

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