In places like rural West Africa, getting life-saving vaccines to patients is an epic challenge: A delivery driver might have to ride for hours on a motorcycle over rough roads to remote areas, while trying to keep the vials cold in 100-degree weather. Trips are limited by how much vaccine can stay at the right temperature, and drivers have to immediately return to town for fresh ice packs for the next delivery.
New nanotechnology might not make the journey any easier, but it can solve the problem of keeping vaccines stable.
The technology, developed by scientists at the University of Colorado and being brought to the market by a startup called Nanoly Bioscience, consists of a nano-polymer material (basically, nanoparticles suspended in larger particles) that can be blended with liquid vaccines to protect them from the heat.
“The polymer keeps the vaccine in a matrix state–imagine strands like spaghetti forming a kind of net,” explains Balaji Sridhar, Nanoly’s co-founder and CEO. “The polymer net keeps the vaccine stabilized so it doesn’t move–the movement at higher temperatures is the reason why you get destabilization.”
It’s not the first attempt to tackle the problem. The Gates Foundation, for example, has helped fund a “super-thermos” that insulates vaccines and even sends text messages that report the temperature. But while that thermos can cost more than $1,000, Nanoly says its product will be affordable.
“The polymer we’re using is a readily available one and it’s very cheap to make,” Sridhar says. “We predict that with economies of scale it will get even cheaper.”
The backbone of the technology is already FDA-approved, and the next step will be proving that it works at at least a small scale. By the summer of next year, the team hopes to start further FDA trials.
When it’s available, the idea might also help in the developed world, where transporting vaccines in refrigerated trucks is hugely expensive. “Saving on those transportation costs can help someone like the CDC focus on developing more vaccines,” Sridhar says.
More critically, the stabilized vaccines should help make them cheaper and more accessible in the developing world, where around 3 million people–more than half of whom are children–die from diseases like measles that vaccines could prevent.