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Can this new nanotech tool speed up the making of vaccines?

Scientists have created a cost-effective nanotechnology method that could help pharmaceutical companies by minimizing the use of material and energy

The method works by using soap-like bubbles as nano-containers. With DNA nanotechnology, multiple ingredients can be mixed within the containers. (Nikos Hatzakis)

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Could a revolutionary new tool help us meet future pandemics with a quicker response? As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the world, the widespread availability of vaccines is one of the most resolute ways of fighting any such outbreaks in the future.

Now, scientists in Denmark have created a new technique that could speed up the development of vaccines and other pharmaceutical products by more than one million times while minimizing costs. The new method works by using soap-like bubbles as nano-containers. With DNA nanotechnology, multiple ingredients can be mixed within these nano-containers.

Also read: Will drones change the way we deliver medicine?

In search of pharmaceutical agents such as new vaccines, the industry routinely scans thousands of related candidate molecules. But this novel technique allows that process to take place on the nanoscale, minimizing the use of materials and energy. Essentially, more than 40,000 different molecules can be synthesized and analyzed within an area smaller than a pinhead and results can be produced in a matter of minutes, new research says.

Developed by researchers in Denmark, the work was published in the journal Nature Chemistry earlier this month. “The volumes are so small that the use of material can be compared to using one liter of water and one kilogram of material instead of the entire volumes of water in all oceans to test material corresponding to the entire mass of Mount Everest,” says Nikos Hatzakis, associate professor at the department of chemistry, University of Copenhagen and head of the research team. “This is an unprecedented save in effort, material, manpower, and energy,” Hatzakis says in a news release from the University of Copenhagen.

The research was carried out in collaboration between the Hatzakis Group, University of Copenhagen, and associate professor Stefan Vogel, University of Southern Denmark. The solution is named “single particle combinatorial lipidic nanocontainer fusion based on DNA mediated fusion” – or SPARCLD.

FILE: A nursing student administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center at UNLV, in Las Vegas. Vaccine equity has been a major cause of concern during the pandemic – with many poorer nations left behind.
FILE: A nursing student administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center at UNLV, in Las Vegas. Vaccine equity has been a major cause of concern during the pandemic – with many poorer nations left behind. (AP)

The process involves integrating elements from distant disciplines: synthetic biochemistry, nanotechnology, DNA synthesis, combinational chemistry, and even machine learning. “No single element in our solution is completely new, but they have never been combined so seamlessly,” explains Hatzakis. The method provides results within just seven minutes.

What could be the possible areas of application of this technique? “A safe bet would be that both industry and academic groups involved in synthesis of long molecules such as polymers could be among the first to adopt the method. The same goes for ligands of relevance for pharmaceutical development. A particular beauty of the method is that it can be integrated further, allowing for direct addition of a relevant application,” Hatzakis adds.

Further examples could be RNA strings for the important biotech tool CRISPR, or an alternative for screening and detecting and synthesizing RNA for future pandemic vaccines, the release adds.

Vaccine equity has been a major cause of concern during the pandemic – with many poorer nations left behind as countries around the world rushed to vaccinate its population against the covid-19 virus. According to a news report in Nature last July, most people in the poorest countries will need to wait another two years – till at least 2023 – before they are vaccinated against COVID-19. Around 11 billion doses are needed to fully vaccinate 70% of the world’s population against COVID-19, the report said.

According to a much more recent Bloomberg report from March – based on numbers from analytics firm Airfinity Ltd – more than 9 billion doses could be produced in 2022, but vaccine demand may decline to a rate of about 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion doses per year in 2023 and beyond.

Also read: Going for your covid-19 vaccine? Keep these things in mind

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