Flu patch could herald end of vaccination by injection

‘Painless’ plaster passes early trials as professionals aim to boost uptake of inoculation

Prof Mary Horgan, a consultant in infectious diseases at Cork University Hospital said that while the patch was at very early clinical trial stage, the big benefit would be that it is self-applied, and eliminates “needle phobia”. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

An easy-to-use flu vaccine patch has successfully passed early human trials, raising the prospect of an end to sometimes painful flu vaccination administered by injection.

The “painless” sticking plaster that delivers the vaccine into the skin has been developed in the US. It has 100 tiny hair-like microneedles on its adhesive side that penetrate the skin’s surface – and can be administered by simply placing it on the wrist and leaving it for 20 minutes. It is so easy to use that people can stick it on themselves without medical supervision.

The patch created by a team at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology could revolutionise how flu and other vaccines are given, though more clinical tests over the next few years are needed to get the patch system approved for widespread use, according to experts in Ireland and Britain. Details of the breakthrough are published in the latest issue of the Lancet medical journal.

Even though it was a small sample group of 100 patients, the patch, if successfully developed, would bring a host of advantages:

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– It would help more people get immunised (poor uptake of the vaccine has been reported in many countries in spite of heightened risk of a pandemic);

– Its ease of use and lack of any pain will go down well with those who are scared of injections, including children – the microneedle patch punctures the uppermost layers of the skin, whereas regular flu injections go into muscle;

– Unlike the standard flu jab, it does not need to be kept in the fridge, meaning pharmacies could easily stock it on their shelves for people to buy;

– It brings storage and waste disposal benefits. It can be thrown in the bin after use because the microneedles dissolve away, thereby eliminating safety risks associated with used hypodermic needles. It can be safely stored for up to a year so it could prove extremely useful in the developing world.

Volunteers who tested it said they preferred it to injections, the Lancet reports. Most said using it was painless but some experienced mild side effects including redness, itching and tenderness in the area of skin where it had been applied. These symptoms got better on their own in a few days.

The patch offers the same protection as a regular vaccine, but without pain, according to its developers. Lead researcher Prof Mark Prausnitz, who is also part of a company that wants to license the technology, said: “If you zoom in under the microscope what you’ll see are microscopically small needles. They puncture painlessly into the skin.”

Dr Nadine Rouphael, from Emory University, said: “We could envisage vaccination at home, in the workplace or even via mail distribution.”

Dr Brenda Corcoran, head of the HSE National Immunisation Office welcomed the breakthrough. "Anything to make the flu vaccine more accessible and easier to get is good," she added.

This had the potential to ensure more people were vaccinated and lead to less illness, she said. While the study was done on adults, there was nothing to suggest it could not be applied to children.

The latest flu vaccine figures, based on uptake by people over 65 with a medical card, is 55 per cent – the World Health Organisation has a global target of 75 per cent.

Ease of use was especially pertinent in a global context, Dr Corcoran said. The patch could be kept on a shelf at up to 40 degrees, when most vaccines had to be stored at between 2 and 8 degrees or they would lose their potency.

“In addition, there is nothing to suggest this technology could not be used with other vaccines.”

‘Needle phobia’

Prof Mary Horgan, a consultant in infectious diseases at Cork University Hospital, said that while the patch was at very early clinical trial stage, the big benefit would be that it is self-applied, and eliminates "needle phobia". Health professionals spent a lot of time administering vaccines, she added.

Uptake of the flu vaccine in Ireland among the public and health professionals could be a lot better, she said. The ease of patch use that would be particularly beneficial in this regard. With the threat of flu pandemics, it would enable the vaccine to be sent out to a vast population quickly; “the reach would be huge”.

Experts from Public Health England said it might also be good to use in young children, who tend not to like needles, although the UK has already introduced a nasal spray flu vaccine for them.

Prof John Edmunds, an expert in infectious diseases at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told BBC News: “This study is undoubtedly an important step towards a better way to deliver future vaccines.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times