Painless needles could slash vaccine costs

Tyndall makes small patches that have about 100 microscopic needles projecting down for implantation in the skin

Dr Anne Moore, UCC School of Pharmacy, showing three of the small microneedle patches that could deliver better vaccinations. Photograph: Tomas Tyner/UCC.

Science Editor

Researchers in Cork have come up with innovative new vaccination techniques that could slash the cost of controlling diseases such as malaria. Even better, the vaccinations are painless as no big needles are involved.

And in a second development coming from the research, it will soon become possible to deliver vaccines or even botox treatments using tiny painless dissolvable needles.

Immunologist Dr Anne Moore led the research which involved University College Cork, Tyndall National Institute and the Jenner Institute at Oxford. Next week she takes the technology across to Silicon Valley in search of venture capital and company investors who can help bring it into clinical trials and subsequent production.


"It has been very commercially driven since we started the project back in 2007 with a grant from Enterprise Ireland, " said Dr Moore who is a principal investigator and lecturer in the School of Pharmacy at UCC..

The advance came by combining her expertise in vaccines with nanotechnology developments at Tyndall involving what are known as “microneedles”.

Instead of giving a vaccination with one large needle, Tyndall makes small patches that have about 100 microscopic needles projecting down for implantation in the skin. They are so small you feel almost nothing, she said.

Dr Moore and the team in the department of pharmacology found ways to package malaria vaccine into the microneedles and began testing them. The patches did a better job providing immunity than single needles. Better still, a high level of protection was achieved with just half the amount of vaccine, she and colleagues write in the journal Scientific Reports from the Nature group of publications.

This represents massive savings for developing countries as they seek ways to treat the disease. But the latest version of the patch promises to make even better savings. The new dissolvable microneedles are made from forms of sugar and this locks up and protects the vaccine. This means there is no need for costly refrigeration in remote areas where malaria is endemic, the vaccines can just be left on a shelf, Dr Moore said. “Delivering the vaccine would be half the price as a result.”

There are other major benefits from the painless needles. Single needles cause skin inflammation that can make the body react against the vaccine itself so the same vaccine can be used as a booster. The patches don’t trigger this and so the original vaccine can be used over and over, she said.

With so many things going for it there should be no shortage of investor interest, but Dr Moore can promise more. The same dissolvable technology could be used to deliver painless botox treatments, with a small patch taking the sting out of this popular procedure.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.