- Scientists are looking at utilizing time-released microparticles to develop “self-boosting” vaccines.
- The vaccines could help eliminate the need for booster shots.
- The technology could be used on vaccines for a variety of illnesses from COVID-19 to influenza.
- Experts say they could also help keep people vaccinated in under-served nations and communities.
People have become well-acquainted with booster shots during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some are on their fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
But what if you could get a vaccine once that would boost itself? It’s not as wild as it sounds.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are exploring a new drug delivery system that could work by using tiny microparticles shaped like coffee dispenser pods to administer drugs in the bloodstream at staggered times — anywhere from days to months later.
They wrote about their findings in the journal Science Advances. The technology is still in the early laboratory stages and will need to go through animal and human testings.
If it works, this technology could profoundly affect everything from vaccines to cancer drugs to biological medications that require consistent and regular delivery. These include insulin.
“The current work out of MIT provides unique and early proof-of-concept data supporting the timed release of drugs or vaccines,” said Dr. Armand Balboni, the chief executive officer of Appili Therapeutics and former staff officer at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
“While much more needs to be done to prove that this approach works in the clinic, this technology could reduce the need for multiple shots and the prime-boost approach, which is currently used for most vaccines,” Balboni told Healthline.
That “prime-boost” approach should be familiar to COVID-19 vaccine recipients. Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines required two shots before a person was initially considered “fully vaccinated.”
With this technology, the immune system could get primed on the initial dose and then microparticles could release a second and final dose at an appropriate time in the future.
“We believe these particles have the potential to create a safe, single-injection, self-boosting vaccine in which a cocktail of particles with different release times can be created by changing the composition,” Robert Langer, ScD, a senior study author and a professor in MIT’s biological engineering department, said in a press release. “Such a single injection approach has the potential to not only improve patient compliance but also increase… immune responses to the vaccine.”
“It’s a classic example of the sort of out-of-the-box, ingenious problem-solving that MIT has long prided itself on, and a telling exemplification of the clever approaches being pioneered among many drug delivery technology teams,” added Dr. J. Wes Ulm, a physician and medical researcher as well as an MIT alumnus.
To make these new particles, researchers had to engineer a new microfabrication technique using a biocompatible compound called PLGA (polylactic-co-glycolic acid), already used in other medical applications such as dissolvable sutures.
The technology is “akin to what you may have read about with 3-D printers, to generate little packages housing the drug payload that, in the researchers’ description, roughly resemble an assemblage of coffee cups with lids,” Ulm explained to Healthline.
“These structures are composed of PLGA, a specialized polymer that is an extra-long, stringy molecule, like those used in plastics that can break down within the body over time instead of requiring surgical removal, he added.
The researchers found that by adjusting the different polymers, they could affect the release of a fluorescent dye into the surrounding environment.
“If you want the particle to release after six months for a certain application, we use the corresponding polymer, or if we want it to release after two days, we use another polymer,” Morteza Sarmadi, Ph.D., a lead study author and mechanical engineer at MIT, said in a press brief. “A broad range of applications can benefit from this observation.”
Much like mRNA vaccines represent a potential leap forward in vaccine development with their high degree of customizability, speed of development, and potential for tailored therapies like cancer vaccines, experts say these microparticle containers could represent a leap forward for standard drug delivery.
“The impact will be exceptional,” said Dr. Laura Purdy, a physician and chief medical officer at telehealth company OpenLoop. “We will get to rethink the frequency with which we get vaccines to adults and children.”
“I can also envision applications for other chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and others,” she told Healthline. “Imagine a world where people with chronic diseases don’t have to take a pill every day to manage their medical conditions anymore. That is a very exciting future.”
But perhaps the more dramatic effect could be this microparticle delivery system’s impact on equitable outcomes for underserved populations.
“This approach could potentially be revolutionary for several applications, but above all for facilitating options for relatively underserved communities with limited or uncertain access to healthcare resources, and whose members may have difficulty in following up with trained medical personnel to receive administrations of medications, vaccines, or other drugs entailing a multi-dose series scattered over weeks or months,” Ulm said.
“Here in the U.S., we have an ongoing challenge with healthcare access, particularly in many destitute regions, among the elderly, in those suffering from drug addiction, or by undocumented or itinerant workers,” he continued. “Medical follow-up and compliance with pharmaceutical regimens can be especially difficult for such patients and their treating physicians and other caregivers, and in such cases, this technology can have broad and particularly valuable application.”