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Is this the future of vaccines? UNC researchers create 3D printed vaccine patches

Scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill and Stanford University said this week that they’ve successfully created a 3D-printed vaccine patch that delivers a stronger immunity response than a standard vaccine shot.

The patch, which would be placed on the skin like a Band-Aid, is covered in microneedles that deliver vaccines directly into the skin.

The researchers tested the patches on animals, and, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported an antibody response 50 times higher than the traditional jab. The patches were applied with thumb pressure for two minutes and then left on the skin for 24 hours, according to the study.

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A 3D-printed vaccine patch. UNC-Chapel Hill

The findings could have a profound impact on the logistical rollout of vaccines in the future, said Joe DeSimone, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University and professor emeritus at UNC.

The patches are virtually painless and could eliminate one of the main reasons people refuse to get vaccines, which is a fear of needle injections.

But more important, DeSimone said, is that they don’t require extremely cold temperatures like some vaccines, making them easier and cheaper to ship all over the world.

“I think it totally is” the future of vaccines, DeSimone said in a telephone interview with The News & Observer. “I think microneedles can be the OS for vaccine design — the operating system. And I think we’re putting too much weight on the traditional way of delivery even in the design stage of vaccines.”

Whether the patch will ever be used to deliver COVID-19 vaccines remains to be seen. DeSimone told The N&O the patch might be ready for human clinical trials in 18 to 14 months.

DeSimone is a prominent figure in the world of 3D printing.

During his time at UNC — where he worked from 1990 to 2014 — DeSimone pioneered a new type of 3D printing called Continuous Liquid Interface Production, or CLIP.

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Joe DeSimone was a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. N&O file photo 2015 N&O file photo

The breakthrough that CLIP brought helped DeSimone launch the 3D printing company Carbon Inc., which has raised more than $680 million from investors and has customers ranging from Adidas to Ford Motor Co.

The microneedles for the patches were made using a Carbon CLIP 3D printer, UNC said.

DeSimone said that the patches create a stronger immune response than needles because they deliver the vaccine to the skin rather than the muscle.

“The target cells for vaccines are way more common in our skin than in our muscle,” he said. “And that’s because of the way we’ve evolved. You know, if you fall and cut yourself, the first line of defense for avoiding infection is in the skin and those immune cells are the targets for vaccine. There’s literally 100 to 1,000 times more per unit volume in the skin than in the muscle.”

The patches were tested with a model vaccine, but DeSimone believes they could carry any type of vaccine, including the mRNA vaccines that have been used so effectively during the coronavirus pandemic.

The work behind 3D printing of vaccine patches predates the COVID-19 pandemic by a few years. But the struggles of delivering vaccines to the entire world have shown how critical vaccine technology is going forward, DeSimone said.

“Despite how terrible this pandemic has been — and it’s been awful, really awful — it could have been a lot worse,” he said. “This thing could have been avian flu with a 30% death rate, and we would be scrambling way more than we have been.

“I think a lot of people believe it’s just a matter of time (before the next pandemic), and therefore technologies like this need to be readied for the future.”

There could be significant cost savings as well, according to DeSimone’s own projections. “I’ve heard numbers of syringe needles and glass vials and everything being north of $3 to $7 (per vaccine). And I think we can make these patches for less than 10 cents,” he said.

DeSimone, striking an optimistic tone, said the ease of transportation of 3D patches could revolutionize the way vaccines are administered.

“We think — and our corporate partners that are emerging think — that the whole direction of this is you’re going to receive a vaccine via like Amazon or the U.S. Postal Service in the future,” he said.

The next step for the patches is a clinical trial in non-human primates. That could come as early as the first part of 2022, and eventually, the trials would focus on specific vaccines rather than model ones.

Commercial partners, though, are already reaching out to DeSimone about working with the technology, and the universities are eager to commercialize it.

“We love to commercialize stuff, and so we’re eager to help facilitate building strategic partnerships to make this happen,” he said. “We’re in those dialogues now.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.

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