Researchers working to protect vaccines from heat

High temperatures that render vaccines ineffective are one of the biggest challenges faced by vaccination campaigns in developing countries. Now, Professor Mark Tibbitt from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) has found a solution to this problem that may prove to be revolutionary.

Mark Tibbitt is ETH-Professor of Macromolecular Engineering

Most vaccines consist largely of proteins, meaning that they lose their effect if heated beyond a certain point. As a result, vaccines require constant refrigeration during transport and storage, which represents a serious challenge for developing countries with no roads or functioning electricity.

Moreover, uninterrupted refrigeration is extremely expensive, in particular for poor countries. Around one third of the cost of vaccination is refrigeration, commented Mark Tibbitt, ETH Professor of Macromolecular Engineering, speaking to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper. «If we no longer require a cold chain, we can vaccinate many more people for the same amount of money.»

«The potential is huge»
Against this backdrop, the 33-year-old scientist is hard at work on the development of a project aimed at combating this issue. Thereby, he is assisted by his doctoral student, Bruno Marco Dufort. «We are researching a form of packaging that makes vaccines more resistant to high temperatures», explained Tibbitt in a conversation with FAIRMED. More specifically, they are appending the protein molecules in the vaccine with four-armed molecules that combine to form a lattice, which then encapsulates the proteins and prevents clumping at high temperatures. According to Tibbitt, the method is expected to be applicable for numerous different vaccines, making it all the more promising.

In view of this, he thinks the new approach has the potential to make an enormous impact. «We often have life-saving vaccines available, but the cost and difficulty of transporting them to the right place are ultimately prohibitive. If we succeed in reducing the need for refrigeration, we should be able to provide many more vaccines to those who need them most.»