Polymer film that gradually releases DNA coding for viral proteins could offer a better alternative to traditional vaccines.
Vaccines usually consist of inactivated viruses that prompt the immune system to remember the invader and launch a strong defense if it later encounters the real thing. However, this approach can be too risky with certain viruses, including HIV.
In recent years, many scientists have been exploring DNA as a potential alternative vaccine. About 20 years ago, DNA coding for viral proteins was found to induce strong immune responses in rodents, but so far, tests in humans have failed to duplicate that success.
MIT researchers describe a new type of vaccine-delivery film that holds promise for improving the effectiveness of DNA vaccines. If such vaccines could be successfully delivered to humans, they could overcome not only the safety risks of using viruses to vaccinate against diseases such as HIV, but they would also be more stable, making it possible to ship and store them at room temperature.
This type of vaccine delivery would also eliminate the need to inject vaccines by syringe, says Darrell Irvine, an MIT professor of biological engineering and materials science and engineering. “You just apply the patch for a few minutes, take it off and it leaves behind these thin polymer films embedded in the skin,” he says.
The researchers can control how much DNA gets delivered by tuning the number of polymer layers. They can also control the rate of delivery by altering how hydrophobic (water-fearing) the film is. DNA injected on its own is usually broken down very quickly, before the immune system can generate a memory response. When the DNA is released over time, the immune system has more time to interact with it, boosting the vaccine’s effectiveness.
The polymer film also includes an adjuvant — a molecule that helps to boost the immune response. In this case, the adjuvant consists of strands of RNA that resemble viral RNA, which provokes inflammation and recruits immune cells to the area.
The ability to provoke inflammation is one of the key advantages of the new delivery system, says Michele Kutzler, an assistant professor at Drexel University College of Medicine. Other benefits include targeting the wealth of immune cells in the skin, the use of a biodegradable delivery material, and the possibility of pain-free vaccine delivery, she says.