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1 May 2017

Microscopic Silica ‘Cages’ Enable Vaccine Stabilisation at Heightened Temperatures

Scientists from the University of Bath have made a potentially game-changing breakthrough, one that could revolutionise the way in which precious vaccines and medicines are handled, stored, and distributed around the world, according to research recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The trouble with many vaccines and medicines is the fragile proteins contained within. These proteins break down and become unusable even at room temperature, meaning refrigeration is required during all stages of storage and distribution, lest the medicine be wasted. This cold chain is highly expensive and in many parts of the world, the infrastructure just doesn’t exist, certainly not on the necessary scale. When this cold chain is broken, the loss is substantial, both in terms of wasted vaccines and lost funds.

Working alongside colleagues at the University of Newcastle, the research team at the University of Bath claim to have found a solution to this problem by creating microscopic silica ‘cages’ to protect the proteins, keeping them intact at temperatures up to 100°C. As a non-toxic and inert compound, silica seems the ideal choice for such techniques.

Dr Asel Sartbaeva with a sample of ensilicated protein   - Img: University of Bath
The silica encasement allows for the proteins to be stored and transported without the need for refrigeration. The silica coating can then be removed via the use of chemicals, which leave the protein itself unaffected and intact. The process, which the research team refers to as ensilication, could enable vital medicines to be distributed around the world at a reduced cost and a lessened risk of damage or loss, something which could turn the tide for many of the world’s more-remote and less-advanced populations.

Project leader Dr Asel Sartbaeva, from the University of Bath’s Department of Chemistry, said of the newly-developed method, “Once the proteins in a vaccine break down and tangle up, it’s useless. You can think of it like an egg that’s been boiled – it can’t be unboiled.

“So the ability to store and transport proteins at room temperatures or even hotter would remove a major logistical problem for safely delivering vaccines and other medicines to patients around the world.

“We have demonstrated with ensilication that we can simply and reliably keep proteins from breaking down even at up to 100°C, or store them as a powder for up to three years at room temperature without loss of function.

“We’re very excited by the potential applications of ensilication and our next steps will be to test our findings on more vaccines, antibodies, antiviral and anti-venom drugs and other biopharmaceuticals.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.