Vaccines that don’t spoil have long been a hope of the international health community. Each year, 2.4 million people die from vaccine-preventable diseases. One of the primary reasons isn’t that there aren’t enough vaccines, it’s that they’re not cold enough. Vaccines need to be stored at quite low temperatures, and in many of the more tropical regions where they’re needed most, there isn’t power to keep them cool. Spoilage can account for wasting of 50% of vaccines, and some international nonprofits estimate that more than 10 times our current vaccine storage will be needed in the developing world over the next 15 years.
A new startup has decided to solve the problem in another way: Make vaccines that don’t need cold storage at all. Vaxess has just won the Harvard University President’s Challenge for social entrepreneurship and will receive $70,000 to commercialize new technology that uses silk to stabilize routine vaccines and eliminate the need for refrigeration in transport and delivery.
"We really see this as a double-bottom-line business," says Michael Schrader, one of the co-founders of Vaxess. "We want it to be sustainably profitable, but it also has a huge potential global health benefit."
The technology involves extracting fibroin, a protein found in silk, to stabilize vaccines at temperatures of up to 113 degrees for up to six months. By transporting and delivering vaccines on a thin filmstrip of silk-derived protein, the need for refrigeration is eliminated, explains Kathryn Kosuda, another co-founder of the company. "The silk forms a matrix around the vaccine, so it’s a structural stabilization. One of the advatages of our technology is that it doesn’t alter the vaccine itself, which is simpler from both a scientific and regulatory standpoint, compared with other thermostabilization techniques." The technology was developed at Tufts University by two professors, David Kaplan and Fiorenzo Omenetto, who have pioneered the use of silk in biomedicine.
Kosuda says that, normally, vaccines at room temperature spoil within a few days. Even stabilized vaccines still need to be kept cool, between 35 to 46 degrees and require refrigeration all along their lifetime of transport and storage. The plan is for Vaxess’s technology to add a last step in the process that wouldn’t change the end product. "At the present time, we’re trying to … not disrupt the end health care worker at the other end, so administration of the shot would be the same," says Kosuda.
The team is working on the MMR (that’s measles, mumps, and rubella, all live virus vaccines) shot, but they hope to expand it to other vaccines as well. Schrader says the fledgling company is talking to pharmaceutical companies as well as assessing the safety of the technology in rotovirus, hepatitis B, and meningococcus vaccines.
All that extra shelf life could have a big impact. "More people die from vaccine-preventable diseases than HIV/AIDS, or diabetes-related problems around the world," says Patrick Ho, another Vaxess founder.