SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Researchers at several universities worldwide are finding new, pain-free ways to deliver vaccines.
They're using 3D printing to create micro-needle patches. About the size of a fingertip, the patches go on like a Band-Aid. They have hundreds of tiny needles, each coated with a mixture of the COVID-19 vaccine and sugar.
"You put this patch on, and the micro-needles are so small that it's pain-free," says Dr. Joe DeSimone from Stanford University.
His team is working with researchers at the University of North Carolina to develop a micro-needle patch.
"After you wear it for a couple of hours, that sugar will dissolve into the skin and deliver the vaccine, right where all those immune cells that are targeted."
DeSimone says delivering the vaccine to the skin is more effective than a shot into the muscle. That's because the skin has a higher concentration of cells.
"When we get the vaccine in the muscle in our arm, it's missing a lot of the cells that we're actually targeting," he says. "But what's interesting is we have 1000-fold more of those cells just underneath the skin, in the dermis."
Since the vaccine reaches more cells, it delivers a higher level of immunity. DeSimone and his team published a study that found their micro-needle patch creates 50 times more antibodies than a traditional shot.
"So your same amount of vaccine that you manufacture can now inoculate 50 times more people," he explains.
But expanding supply is only one benefit he sees in using micro-needles.
The sugar solution the vaccine is mixed with is more stable than liquid COVID-19 vaccines. It can be stored at higher temperatures and is easier to ship. It also will have a longer shelf-life.
The patches also don't take a trained doctor or nurse to administer.
DeSimone says all of that means this patch is perfect for helping underdeveloped countries catch up in their efforts to vaccinate people.
And, because it's pain-free, the patch takes the fear of needles out of the equation. A recent study in the UK found around 10% of vaccine-hesitant people say it's because they don't like shots or needles.
"You take away the anxiety and the pain associated with needles, especially for children," DeSimone says.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia and the University of Pittsburgh are also working on micro-needle patches.
The researchers in Queensland published a study showing their patch also delivers a higher immune response than needles. They're using a vaccine developed at the University of Texas, using a nitrogen drying process to turn the vaccine into a powder.
At the University of Pittsburgh, early tests showed their version of the patch, similar to the one at Stanford/UNC, elicits a strong enough response to protect against COVID.
DeSimone says patches like these are the future of medicine.
"I think you should design vaccines on the means of delivery," he says. "So it's going to fundamentally change things."
But this technology is still years away from FDA approval. DeSimone says even if the COVID-19 pandemic is over by then, having this technology around means the world will be more prepared for the next one.