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Nanotechnology Could be Big for Vaccinations

Think about all the things that you have changed in the last two years. Your hair is probably different, whether you got it cut or let it grow out. You've probably upgraded your cell phone, since most contracts span two years, and new models come out even faster than that. You may have new shoes or even a new address.

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These are just a few examples of the many changes that can happen over the course of a few years. The only constant in our lives seems to be rapid change. One thing that hasn't altered much since its introduction into our society is the use of hypodermic needles by health care professionals. Yet even this medical device is about to receive a drastic shake-up. Researchers are studying a new way to deliver vaccines through the use of nanotechnology, and hypodermic needles may soon find themselves on the endangered list.

What is nanotechnology?

Before there was a term for it, nanotechnology was brought to light by Richard Feynman, a physicist, when he spoke to the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology in 1959. The focus of his talk was a process that would give scientists the ability to work with and control individual atoms and molecules. The term "nanotechnology" would enter the social consciousness in 1974 thanks to Norio Taniguchi, a professor at the Tokyo University of Science. Even then nanotechnology didn't fully take off, as we still couldn't see atoms. Finally, in 1981, the scanning tunneling microscope was developed, allowing scientists to view the world at the atomic level.

That is just the history of the word. To get an idea of just how small a nanometer is, here are some facts from the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative:

  • A nanometer measures 10-9, which is a billionth of a meter.
  • In an inch of space there is 25,400,000 nanometers.
  • For people who still read the newspaper, a single page has a thickness of almost 100,000 nanometers.
  • The diameter of a strand of human DNA measures 2.5 nanometers.

What does nanotechnology have to do with hypodermic needles?

Nanotechnology already has many different applications in health care, according to Nano.gov. Nanocrystals can be used for imaging to help with medical diagnoses. Gold nanoparticles have been used to help detect Alzheimer's disease in its early stages. The technology can also help in the detection of plaque buildup in the arteries of the heart.

Where nanotechnology can really have a benefit in health care is when it comes to the application of vaccines. Most vaccines, along with certain medications like insulin, are administered to the body through hypodermic needles. For over 150 years needles have been the preferred method of delivery for many medical drugs, accompanied by certain risks. The possibility of contagion from communicable diseases requires sterile procedures for handling and disposal of needles. Despite precautions, medical staff such as licensed practical nurses or registered nurses can be accidentally stuck with used needles. If something goes wrong in the use of the hypodermic needle the patient may be in danger. Vaccines also have the added limitation of needing to be kept at a certain temperature in order to remain usable.

Using nanotechnology can combat these issues. Biomedical engineer Mark Kendall announced at TEDGlobal 2013 that he has been researching and developing nanopatches to deliver vaccines and other medications to patients. National Geographic reports that a mock trial of these nanopatches was already held in Papua New Guinea, and some tests on animals have also been conducted.

How can nanopatches change health care?

The nanopatches work by using what are called "microprojections," essentially very small needles that can painlessly penetrate the topmost level of skin in order to deliver the vaccine. Currently hypodermic needles deliver their drugs to muscle groups, but this is not necessarily the most effective method of injecting medicines.

The BBC reported Kendall's announcement: "The projections on the nanopatch work with the skin's immune system. We target these cells that reside just a hair's breadth from the surface of the skin. It seems that we may have been missing the immune sweet spot which may be in the skin rather than the muscle which is where traditional needles go."

Eliminating hypodermic needles from the medical world could potentially have many benefits. First and foremost, because the vaccine is absorbed by the cells of the skin instead of being injected into the muscles, smaller dosages can be used. This can help with production costs and the accessibility of health care: "A vaccine that had cost $10 can be brought down to just 10 cents," Kendall said. National Geographic also reports that risks of infection could be reduced.

In addition, the nanopatches don't have to be refrigerated in order to remain viable. When Kendall traveled in Papua New Guinea to test his technology, he found that high temperatures didn't destroy the vaccines the way they could have with the traditional version used in syringes. He explained that when the researchers got back and tested the patches, they discovered no loss in activity.

What's next for the nanopatch?

Kendall hopes to begin full clinical trials on human subjects this year. He has earned a lot of help, as he was named as one of the five winners of the 2012 Rolex Award for Enterprise. The award comes with a $100,000 prize to help fund his research and trials. According to Reuters, Merck, a U.S. pharmaceutical giant and maker of vaccines, has also partnered with Kendall, rewarding him with a three-year research grant.

Some have tried to work with nanopatches in the past. A collaborative effort between researchers at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology worked with patches covered with "microneedles," and an Austrian biotech company Intercell tried to make some as well. Intercell used the patches in conjunction with needle injections instead of as a standalone delivery system.

Kendall's nanopatches, if they are shown to work in full clinical tests, offer promise for broad use. "This could potentially change the world of vaccinations," he said. "But we still have a very long way to go."

About the Author:

Jamar Ramos has been writing poetry and fiction for many years, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. For the last three years, Mr. Ramos switched to producing blog posts for CBSSports.com and writing professionally as an independent contributor for a number of Internet sites. His creative works have been featured in The Bohemian and The San Matean. He now contributes articles for OnlineDegrees.com, OnlineColleges.com, and AlliedHealthWorld.com.