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Forget the fridge: McMaster researchers develop new storage method for vaccines

A student receives a measles vaccine injection

Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

Forget fridges and cumbersome packaging, researchers have developed a new method to store vaccines for months at a time without refrigeration.

It's a practice could help revolutionize and improve health care in areas of the world without reliable electricity.

Researchers at the Biointerfaces Institute at McMaster University developed the method by using pullulan, a water-soluble film former or binding agent, found in oral hygiene products and cosmetics. Inspired by Listerine strips, researcher Sana Jahanshahi-Anbuhi came up with the idea to entrap vaccines in a pullulan-based film (much like gelatin) to keep them stable. Upon need, they would be reconstituted in water and injected.

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The use of polymeric sugars like pullulan to stabilize enzymes is common in scientific practice, though the problem has been finding the right one, Ms. Jahanshahi-Anbuhi said in an e-mail.

This new method is the result of a previous project by the researchers, who developed a litmus test for water purity. It's a pullulan-based pill that dissolves in water, changing its colour based on purity.

"Sana, she's the most creative," said head researcher Dr. Carlos Filipe. "She does a lot of experiments in her kitchen." He explained that the PhD chemical-engineering student was uniquely innovative, the reason why no one has achieved results like theirs.

"Sometimes people think too much before trying things," Dr. Filipe said. "[Sana's] the kind of person who tries and then thinks after."

The team was successful storing one vaccine, and plans to expand to a larger variety, subjecting them to temperature tests, trials and animal studies, which will be aided by the $100,000 grant awarded by Grand Challenges Canada. This kind of research also lends promise for genetics studies and shipping blood samples among other sensitive substances.

Despite pullulan being cheap and easily accessible, "The elephant in the room is lyophilisation (freeze drying)," wrote Dr. Michael Palmer, an associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Waterloo, in an e-mail.

"The advantage of this new pullulan-based method... over lyophilisation is not obvious to me," Mr. Palmer said. The steps are the same: freeze dry, store, reconstitute.

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"The goal they are pursuing is certainly a worthy one."

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