In an early study, researchers have found that a new way to administer a flu vaccine–with a patch similar to a Band-Aid–prompts the same immune reaction as a conventional flu shot, and some observers think the new technology could represent the future of vaccinations.
According to the World Health Organization, seasonal influenza kills up to 500,000 people throughout the world every year. In the United States, between 12,000 and 56,000 people have died from the flu each year since 2010. Despite the flu's threat, only around 40 percent of Americans are vaccinated against the flu.
Many people say they don't get flu shots because they don't like needles or because of the time and expense associated with the shot. Observers say the new flu vaccination patch could address those concerns—and potentially increase vaccination rates, especially because the patches are easier to store and could potentially be self-administered.
How it works
A team lead by Mark Prausnitz, an engineer at Georgia Tech, created a patch that administers a flu vaccine through so-called "microneedles." The needles are small enough that 100 of them can fit on a small patch no larger than a thumb, yet they hold enough of a vaccine to fight three strains of the flu.
Once pressed into the skin, the microneedles dissolve and deliver the vaccine on the outer layer of the skin, which contains many immune system cells. The cells absorb the vaccine and use it to develop the body's immunity against the flu.
Positive results from early trials
Researchers conducted a clinical trial of the patch at Emory University's Hope Clinic that consisted of 100 volunteers who were divided randomly into four different groups. Two groups were vaccinated against the flu via the patch, one group received a traditional flu vaccination, and the final group received a placebo delivered through a patch that looked very similar to the flu vaccination patch. The researchers published their findings last week in The Lancet.
After 28 days, the researchers found that flu antibody levels were "significantly higher" among individuals in groups that were vaccinated against the flu when compared with individuals who received the placebo. Further, the researchers found that individuals in the group that received the patch vaccine had around the same antibody levels as those in the group that received the traditional vaccine shot.
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None of the study participants experienced any serious side effects. Participants who used the patches had mild skin reactions that did not occur among individuals who received traditional flu shots. However, participants who received traditional flu shots were more likely to report experiencing pain, while those in the patch group said the vaccine was not at all painful.
The small-scale study was intended primarily to demonstrate the vaccine's safety. Further research will be needed to determine if the patch-administered vaccine actually prevents cases of the flu.
While the researchers acknowledged that additional testing is needed, they said the clinical trial results are promising for vaccinations against the flu and other diseases.
Katja Hoschler and Maria Zambon of Public Health England in a commentary on the clinical trial wrote that, in addition to being virtually painless, the vaccination patch costs less than traditional vaccination shots, doesn't need to be refrigerated, and can be self-administered. "Microneedle patches have the potential to become ideal candidates for vaccination programs," they wrote (Kaplan, "Science Now," Los Angeles Times, 6/28; Fox, NBC News, 6/29).
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