In the Future Vaccines Will Be Stab-Free

Getting a shot may soon be as easy as popping a pill.

Mar 16 2017, 12:00pm

Stephen McNally/UC Berkeley

If you're one of those people who hates getting a vaccination shot, science might be coming to your rescue: Researchers have developed a technology that could one day let you take a vaccine via a small, pill-sized capsule placed in your mouth. No fuss—and no needles.

The proof-of-concept device, which is called MucoJet and was developed by researchers at UC Berkeley, would be held in the mouth, against the inside of the cheek. The capsule then releases a high-pressure stream of liquid and immune system-triggering molecules to immune cells inside the mouth. The targeted area is known as the buccal region, where many infections enter the body. It's rich in immune cells, but a thick mucosal layer makes it difficult for existing technology to affect them. Though it's only been tested on animals so far, it's proven effective in stimulating an immune response.

So how does it work? The MucoJet is a small capsule made with a 3-D printer. It has two compartments. The outer one holds water; the inner is further divided into two sections, one containing vaccine solution, and the other containing a dry chemical propellant. That propellant might be familiar from high school science experiments: It's citric acid and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). 

When a patient clicks together the two compartments, the water, citric acid, and sodium bicarbonate mix together, producing carbon dioxide gas. The gas creates pressure inside the capsule, which builds until it's high enough to break a seal on the vaccine reservoir. The vaccine solution is forced out of the reservoir in a liquid jet. The researchers compare the pressure to a dentist's water pick: powerful enough to do the trick, but not enough to hurt. They haven't yet tested its effectiveness against delivering vaccines with a needle, but data so far suggests it's comparable. 

The technology isn't just about catering to the needle-phobic among us, though. It's designed to be self-administered; it's simple to use and you wouldn't need a doctor's supervision. It also stores vaccines in a powder form. Self-administration and powdered vaccines could mean getting vital preventative medicine to remote areas. Researchers are also considering other designs, including a lollipop that might encourage children to take their vaccines. And there's talk of a version that could be swallowed, releasing vaccines as it passes through the body. 

That future is a ways off, however. First they have to test the delivery of real vaccines in larger animals, meaning it'll probably be five to ten years before needle-shy humans get to use the MucoJet. Start the countdown.