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Designing A More Efficient, Temperature-Proof Vaccine

Vaccines have to be kept at very specific temperatures in order to work effectively. Vaxess is figuring out how to do that–even in remote areas.

If they’re not stored within a narrow temperature range of 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, vaccines become unusable. Millions of doses are lost in the developing world each year for want of better-performing fridges and more storage space. The U.S. is not exempt from these issues: Recently, a doctor in New Jersey was accused of putting 900 kids at risk because he didn’t adhere to required conditions when storing his vaccinations against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and other diseases.

Several research groups are working on vaccines that don’t need such specific temperature windows, including Vaxess Technologies, in Boston. Founded by Harvard and MIT graduates in 2012, the startup extracts a protein from silk (fibroin) to stabilize vaccines even at very high temperatures (up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit). Once fully developed, the technology could help cut the cost of setting up and monitoring drug-delivery “cold chains,” particularly in last-mile situations where vaccines are most vulnerable to being compromised.

To complement that work, Vaxess is now working on a new vaccine-delivery system: a slow-release skin patch for polio and measles-rubella vaccines. The patches are made up of microneedles, which transfer the vaccines through the dermal layer. “It combines the elimination of the cold chain with this very simple format that is much more compact than a needle or syringe, which is hazardous waste. This could be applied by a lesser-trained health care worker,” Vaxess cofounder Michael Schrader tells Co.Exist.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded Vaxess grants worth $6 million to develop the patches, which slowly dissolve after being pressed into the top layers of the skin. After five minutes, the patches’ polymer spikes wear down to small nubs, so the patch can be safely thrown in the garbage, Schrader says.

The Gates Foundation money will support the manufacturing of the microneedle patches for the stabilized vaccines and other pre-clinical work. If everything goes to plan, Vaxess hopes to move into clinical trials within three years.

Schrader says that in some countries, cold chains represent up to 50% of the cost of getting vaccines to patients. There’s the cost of refrigeration itself; the cost of proving that vaccines have remained cold throughout (often by installing temperature sensors); and the cost absorbed when vaccines fall out of the cold chain and need to be replaced. Stabilizing vaccines would broaden their transit options–for instance, they could safely rest in airplane holds at high altitudes–and save money and time in the delivery process.

We last wrote about Vaxess five years ago, when it had just won a Harvard startup prize. It will be another five years at least before Vaxess releases another product, if at all, but Schrader is far from becoming discouraged.

“I’ve seen a lot of colleagues who didn’t have an underlying mission beyond just making money fizzle out after three or four years, even if they’re successful,” he says. “The global health impact of this allows us to come into work each morning. We know if we succeed, we’ve done something more creative than a parking app or something like that.”

Indeed: It’s always a bonus to know you can save lives by doing what you do.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Co.Exist. He edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels.