Needlephobes, rejoice: Vaccines may soon be a lot less painful. A needle-free vaccination method is being developed by Intercell USA (which, before its acquisition by Austria's Intercell AG in August, was called Iomai) with help from design giant Ideo.
The new vaccination system, which uses a patch, is known in scientist-speak as transcutaneous immunization, and its secret is the Langerhans cell, part of the immune system that's in the skin. Intercell discovered how to trigger an immune response from the Langerhans cells, then asked Ideo to help design a product for vaccine delivery. But there was a stumbling block from the outset: An extremely thin layer of skin needs to be removed just before applying the patch. The layer is "about one-thousandth of an inch — or 25 microns — thick," explains Tad Simons, the project leader in Ideo's health practice.
Ideo's designers tried hundreds of skin-prep techniques on their in-house test subjects, aka themselves; some days they appeared "covered with road-rash polka dots," says Simons. They finally settled on a device equipped with a strip of fine sandpaper (1). By pressing it onto the skin and pulling a tab with a motion akin to removing a Post-it tape flag from its package (2), the sandpaper "rubs the skin at the right speed and the right pressure," Simons says. "There's no perception on the skin of it happening." Because the scratch is invisible, the device leaves an ink mark to orient the placement of the vaccine patch (3).
Intercell expects the first patch vaccine to target traveler's diarrhea. That product, which could generate more than $750 million a year in revenue, is moving toward FDA approval; phase 2 trials are done, and phase 3 testing is set for early 2009. A second vaccine, for pandemic flu, is in the pipeline. Intercell's ambitions are even bigger: It hopes the technology will be used for vaccination campaigns, with kits simply mailed out for self-application.
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