Pollen delivers vaccine rather than a sneeze

Micrographs show (A) intact pollens, (B) interior of crushed pollen, (C) interior of crushed pollen after cleaning, and (D) test vaccine filled into clean pollen.

Pollen is normally just a frustration for those of us with hay fever, but it could actually turn out to be a lifesaver. A research project at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking at turning pollen grains into a delivery system for oral vaccines.

Harvinder Gill, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Texas Tech University who is sponsored through DARPA's Young Faculty Awards (YFA) program, is developing a pollen-based oral vaccination platform in order to create a vaccine that is easy to transport and easy to take, needing no specialist medical training. This is particularly important for troops deployed in remote areas and for people living in areas where medical support is hard to come by.

"DARPA already has a large portfolio of biology programs aimed at protecting the health of U.S. warfighters from threats known and unknown," said Jay Schnitzer, director of DARPA's Defense Sciences Office, which currently oversees the YFA program. "We actively support innovative basic research like that conducted by YFA recipients because it helps open new areas for exploration and fosters valuable, lasting relationships between DoD and the research community."

Why use pollen? The shell is durable and inert, and can protect vaccines from stomach acid and carry them through to the gut, where they can trigger an immune reaction. It's also cheap, plentiful, and once the antigens are removed, it does not trigger an immune response on its own.

- read the press release