McMaster researchers, biotech firm team up to create vaccine strips that 'dissolve in your mouth'
‘Many people don’t like getting needles, so that’s one obvious advantage to an oral vaccine,’ researcher says
Researchers at McMaster University and a biotechnology firm in Burlington, Ont., are investigating the possible delivery of vaccines via a thin strip "that would dissolve in your mouth."
It would be similar to a Listerine breath strip, but would be infused with a COVID-19 or another vaccine.
The team at McMaster and Rapid Dose Therapeutics say right now, COVID vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna must stay within their recommended temperature ranges, from –15 C to –80 C, at all times. That means they rely on a complicated supply chain of freezers and temperature-controlled shipping methods.
"Our team has been able to stabilize the proteins at 40 C or over 100 F, which is game changing," Mark Upsdell, CEO of Rapid Dose Therapeutics, told CBC Hamilton. "That is a key breakthrough."
"Sixty per cent or more of the countries are warm — Africa, Mexico. You think of all these countries that don't have the logistics that we have in North America. You could put, whether it's dengue or the follow-on influenza, the COVID vaccine into this strip and send that out to those countries that don't have the infrastructure, [and] at a lower cost. They'd fit into an envelope. They are very, very easy to transport."
Many people don't like getting needles, so that's one obvious advantage to an oral vaccine.- Alex Adronov, polymer expert
Alex Adronov, a McMaster polymer expert, says similar to how the older technology of vaccines involves delivering just the protein antigen, his team is taking that same spike protein and trying to deliver it orally, so that the body's immune system can develop an immune response.
"So, what we're trying to do is rather than having the vaccine components be delivered via needle into the arm, we want to try to have them delivered orally through the mouth with a rapid dissolvable film," Andronov said.
"Many people don't like getting needles, so that's one obvious advantage to an oral vaccine."
Andronov says the thin strips, which dissolve in the mouth, have advantages over a pill too.
When a pill is swallowed, he says, it has to go through the gastrointestinal system, where molecules and vaccine components are degraded.
"With this oral delivery method, we're trying to get the antigen, the vaccine dose, to be delivered directly to the sites where it is needed without going through what's called first pass metabolism in the body, so that's another advantage," Andronov said.
"It's fast-acting. It's very convenient to administer an oral strip rather than pills. Pills, people have to swallow, and many people are averse to swallowing pills. But this is something that just goes into the mouth and rapidly dissolves and does the delivery that way."
Still in the early stages
Andronov says they are "still in the early discovery stages of this work" but have shown that they can produce films that are loaded with protein.
The team has completed an initial animal study that showed "some positive results, in that animals were able to develop antibodies to model protein that we delivered this way," Andronov said.
"Now we're working toward a second round of animal studies where we would incorporate the COVID-19 spike protein within these strips to see if we can elicit an immune response to that spike protein, the same way we are doing with people with the current vaccine."
The research is being done with the support of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).