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Hydrogel keeps vaccination fluid nice and cool at low cost

Hydrogel keeps vaccination fluid nice and cool at low cost

Many vaccines require constant refrigeration during transportation and storage. An international research team led by ETH Zurich has developed a special hydrogel that significantly improves the shelf life of vaccines, even without refrigeration. The invention could save lives and significantly reduce cold chain costs, according to ETH Zurich in a press release.

Nearly half of the vaccines produced are being discarded, according to ETH. Often the reason for this is logistical barriers in transporting them to different regions of the world. Most vaccines must be constantly refrigerated from the time they are produced to the time they are given to patients. Maintaining a constant temperature in the cold chain is a major achievement under optimal conditions.

However, in many African countries, this is not possible because, for example, limited transport infrastructure and unreliable electricity supply make it difficult to maintain the cold chain and thus deliver healthy vaccines.

Scientists from ETH Zurich and entrepreneurs from Colorado Starting Nanoly Bioscience Therefore, a safe and versatile platform has been developed to increase the thermal stability of vaccines. Their goal is to dramatically improve the distribution of safe vaccines and reduce cold chain costs.

Like a Tupperware container

“Think of it like an egg,” explains Bruno Marco Dufort, a doctoral student in Professor Mark Tippett’s Grand Molecular Engineering Laboratory. “At room temperature or in the refrigerator, eggs retain their sticky protein structure. But in boiling water or in a pan, it completely changes.”

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It’s similar to the proteins in a vaccine: Once exposed to certain temperatures, they clump together. These clots cannot be undone, even when the vaccine has been refrigerated. “You can’t ‘dump’ an egg from a boil either,” Marco Dufort asserts.

So the researcher and his team developed a new hydrogel, which was recently presented in the journal science progress. The gel is based on a biocompatible synthetic polymer called PEG. This forms a protective sheath around very large and complex molecules, such as proteins found in vaccines, antibodies, or those found in gene therapies.

The packaging works like a molecular “Tupperware tray” that coats the proteins and keeps them separate from each other. This allows the proteins to withstand greater fluctuations in a higher temperature range. Instead of the traditional range of two to eight degrees Celsius that must be maintained in the cold chain, packaging allows proteins to be stored in the range of 25 to 65 degrees Celsius. A sugar solution can be added to the hydrogel to easily release the encapsulated material at the point of use.

cancer research

However, researchers still have a long way to go. More research, safety, and clinical studies are needed before the hydrogel can actually be used to deliver a vaccine. However, immediate application is possible, for example in transporting heat-sensitive enzymes for cancer research or protein molecules for in vitro research.

read Here’s the full press release.

Image: A pictorial representation of the gels encapsulating a viral vaccine. (© ETH Zurich / Jonathan Zawada)