According to the World Health Organization, about 2 million people die every year from diseases that vaccines can prevent. A team of researchers with academic roots and commercial ambitions hope to change this stat through a technology that enables vaccines to survive without refrigeration, which will help make it easier to get the drugs to people who need them, who often live far from doctors and without the electricity to keep the vaccines at the correct temperature.
"It’s very expensive when you’re talking about transporting refrigerated vaccines on airplanes or ships. We’re trying to eliminate the need for refrigeration," notes Nanxi Liu, who first conceived the research effort as a graduate student on winter break from the University of California at Berkeley.
Nanoly—as the project is dubbed—has a magic ingredient: a specially formulated polymer, which will form a layer around the vaccine to protect it. The polymer itself is nothing new, but no one has gotten the chemistry just right before.
The fact that the chemical itself has been approved in different forms by regulatory agencies like the FDA should ease the way for approval. In fact, the Nanoly group hopes to have something for the commercial market in under five years—although their primary goal of vaccine protection will likely take longer.
Already their lab-tested innovation is winning accolades: The team placed 3rd among 1,800 submissions in the Dell Social Innovation Challenge and tied for 1st place in the social innovation category at the Intel Global Challenge. They also received 1st place at the Duke University Start-Up Challenge.
Despite its university associations, this fledgling business is determined to go the commercial rather than the academic route. Liu notes that while universities are great when it comes to scientific discoveries, they aren’t as efficient about spreading inventions at the market level as private industry can be. "You can call us an ‘early-stage biotech company,'" says Nanoly scientist Peter Matheu.