Pain-free microneedle patch could help boost flu vaccination rates

A phase 1 study shows that a dissolvable microneedle flu patch is safe and can elicit an immune response as robust as an intramuscular injection.

Lagging flu vaccination rates in the U.S., especially among children, have scientists working to take the "Ow!" out of immunization. Enter an experimental patch with dissolvable microneedles.

The Band-Aid-like vaccine patch is the size of a dime and contains 100 tiny, water-soluble spinules just long enough to penetrate the skin and deliver the vaccine.

In a phase 1 trial on 100 adults, scientists from the Emory University School of Medicine and Georgia Institute of Technology found that the device is safe and can elicit similar antibody responses to those seen with shots. Some participants experienced local skin reactions, such as mild itching for two to three days, scientists reported in The Lancet.

“With the microneedle patch, you could pick it up at the store and take it home, put it on your skin for a few minutes, peel it off and dispose of it safely, because the microneedles have dissolved away,” said Mark Prausnitz, Ph.D., who codeveloped the technology, in a release.

This means people wouldn't need a healthcare provider to administer the vaccine, which could reduce the cost of care. It could be easier to distribute, too, even in areas without typical healthcare infrastructure because the vaccine can remain potent in the patches for at least one year without refrigeration. And manufacturing costs are on par with those for prefilled syringes, the researchers said.

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The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases funded the study.

Although the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends annual flu vaccination for all people aged six months and older, vaccination rates in the U.S. have been short of ideal lately in the eyes of scientists and government health agencies. Rates among children stagnated around 60% over the last several years, according to the CDC.

“Having the option of a flu vaccine that can be easily and painlessly self-administered could increase coverage and protection by this important vaccine,” principal investigator Nadine Rouphael, M.D. said in a statement.

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The study results come shortly after CDC's ACIP recommended against AstraZeneca's needle-free FluMist vaccine for the second straight year. The nasal option has been the preference of choice for those, including children, looking to avoid needles, but the committee is questioning its efficacy.

Atlanta-based startup Micron Biomedical, cofounded by Prausnitz, holds the license to the patch technology. Besides future trials to test the flu product, the company is exploring its use with delivering other vaccines, including measles, rubella and polio.