Although he’s sometimes referred to as a ‘rocket scientist’, Professor Mark Kendall has spent most of his career seeking new ways to deliver vaccines.
Every two years the Australian Institute of Policy and Science presents the CSL Young Florey Medal for significant early-career achievements in biomedical science and human health advancement.
Kendall has just received this medal for his invention of Nanopatch, a needle-free technology that could revolutionise the way we deliver life-saving vaccines.
From rockets to medicine
It all began in the late 90s or so, when Kendall, an aspiring rocket scientist, was giving a presentation at a conference.
“A person [from the University of Oxford] came up to me and said he’d really enjoyed my presentation and had an idea of using rockets to fire vaccines into the skin, and would I be interested to come and work with him.”
Kendall, who had just finished his PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Queensland and was working on one of the largest and fastest wind tunnel projects with NASA, was intrigued by the idea. It gave him a chance to turn rocket technology on its head to produce devices meant for saving people, not killing.
He accepted the offer and went to Oxford, where he helped develop a device called PowderJect, which uses pressurised helium gas to deliver DNA vaccine particles to immune cells just under the skin at twice the speed of sound.
When he transferred to the University of Queensland in 2006, Kendall was already thinking of developing another device ideally suited for vaccinations in developing countries. There major roadblocks forced him to look for a truly innovative approach.
There were three main problems to be addressed: thermo-stability, as traditional wet vaccines need to be refrigerated; difficulties procuring needles and syringes during times of disaster; and a fear of needles, which affects around 20 percent of people.
In 2011, Kendall founded the start-up company Vaxxas and gathered an international and multidisciplinary team to approach the project idea from the bottom-up.
The result of their efforts is Nanopatch, a tiny silicon square with 20,000 microscopic spikes that can painlessly deliver a dry vaccine directly to the skin’s immune cells.
“[Dry coating] allows the vaccine to not require refrigeration and therefore be thermo-stable, and at the same time the idea was for it to be pain-free and needle-free,” he explains.
As demonstrated in animal models, vaccine delivery to the skin, which contains dendritic T-cells and antigen-presenting cells, rather than to the muscle, which has a low density of immune cells, also means the dose can be significantly reduced (in some cases even a hundred times).
This means that vaccines that were once expensive to manufacture, such as the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, could become much more affordable for developing countries.
But, as Kendall explains, Nanopatch also has applications for the developed world, especially in a contagious disease crisis.
“Cheaper and perhaps more effective vaccines matter everywhere if a pandemic takes place, these attributes could potentially be important – if you think about the rush to get vaccines to people more quickly, if you need [a smaller] dose then you can get a lot more effective doses to people more quickly,” he says.
“It means a lot”
Kendall says winning the highly competitive and prestigious medal – which comes with a $25,000 cash prize – came as a big shock as he is technically “not a medical scientist by training”.
“It means a lot on many levels – this is not an easy thing to do, so encouragement goes a long way,” he says. “I’m really pleased that the medical field has been so open and encouraging to people like me.”
As any new medical technology, Nanopatch still has a few hurdles to clear before it can hit the market, which Kendall estimates could be about five years away.
While the details are commercial in confidence, human clinical trials are currently underway in Brisbane, and a partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to set up polio vaccine trials in Cuba next year are currently in the works as well.
“It’s still got some way to go, but it’s made a lot of progress,” says Kendall.