A new dissolvable patch has delivered flu vaccines just as effectively as a needle in recent clinical trials in Japan, and it could replace the painful, tricky-to-administer and, for many of us, terrifying injections that can put people off being immunised.
The patch is made up of tiny microneedles that dissolve painlessly into the skin. So far, trials have shown that it's not only safe to use, but can deliver an immune response that's just as strong - and in some cases stronger - than a vaccine delivered via injection.
The idea behind the patch is that it won't just make giving vaccines far more appealing - it could also slow the spread of disease in developing countries by making it easier to vaccinate people in regions without regular access to doctors and nurses.
"We were excited to see that our new microneedle patch is just as effective as the needle-delivered flu vaccines, and in some cases even more effective," lead researcher Shinsaku Nakagawa from Osaka University told the press. "We have shown that the patch is safe and that it works well. Since it is also painless and very easy for non-trained people to use, we think it could bring about a major change in the way we administer vaccines globally."
His isn't the first research team to try to pursue a viable alternative to injections. For years, scientists have been developing microneedles made from polymers and metals, but these needles have the tendency to break off in the skin and leave fragments behind. So Nakagawa and his team took a different approach and created their tiny needles using hyaluronic acid - a substance that occurs naturally in our bodies to cushion our joints. And the idea paid off - these are the first dissolvable microneedles to progress to clinical trials.
The patch works by being stuck onto the body like a very simple Band-Aid, causing the microneedles to painlessly pierce the patient's skin. Once applied, these needles instantly begin to dissolve into the bloodstream, carrying with them the desired vaccine or drug.
You can see the process broken down in the image below:
To test the effectiveness of their new patch, the team took a group of 40 adult male volunteers, and vaccinated them against three different flu strains. Half were given the vaccines via needle, and half via the new dissolvable patch. Not only did the participants experience no adverse reactions as a result of the immunisations, but follow-up blood tests revealed that the microneedles had provided them with a stronger immune response to one of the flu strains than the injection.
The results have been published in the journal Biomaterials. If further trials can replicate these findings and prove that the microneedle patches are not only safe to use, but are an effective way to deliver vaccines, we could be very close to putting an end to immunisation injections for good.
And just imagine living in a world where you can stick a patch on your arm to protect yourself against measles, whooping cough, and tetanus. Seriously, what a time to be alive.