Who needs refrigeration when we have silkworms?
Supporting innovation in healthcare is a key part of PopTech's agenda. We highlight the work of amazing people in our community like Raj Panjabi, and his efforts to build scalable health solutions for war-stricken countries, Matthew Berg and Josh Nesbit’s work to revolutionize health services through mobile technology, architect Michael Murphy’s buildings that heal, and Hayat Sindi’s use of tools micro-fabricated in paper to make diagnostic care available to people living far from medical infrastructures. Every so often, a piece of innovation comes along that broadsides everyone, knocks our socks off, and--hopefully--changes the game forever.
Researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering have discovered a way to maintain the potency of vaccines and other drugs that otherwise require refrigeration for months and possibly years at temperatures above 110 degrees F, by stabilizing them in a silk protein made from silkworm cocoons.
"Silk protein has a unique structure and chemistry that makes it strong, resistant to moisture, stable at extreme temperatures, and biocompatible, all of which make it very useful for stabilizing antibiotics, vaccines and other drugs,” says David Kaplan, leader of the team.
The trick happens at the molecular level. Silk protein fibroin is composed of interlocked crystalline sheets with numerous tiny hydrophobic pockets. The pockets trap and immobilize bioactive molecules, protecting them from the decompositional effect of water and preventing them from unraveling. It’s like enveloping a fragile material in what’s being called “nanoscale Bubble Wrap”.
It is currently necessary to keep bioactive drugs refrigerated all the way from manufacture to use, wherever that may be on the globe. Health experts estimate that nearly half of all global vaccines are lost due to breakdowns in the "cold chain”. The potential for off-infrastructure healthcare, including in war and disaster zones where electricity is unavailable, is enormous.
But here’s perhaps the most remarkable thing. The team believe it will be possible to construct shapes and forms out of the pharmaceutical-infused silk, such as microneedles, microvesicles and films, that allow the non-refrigerated drugs to be stored and administered in a single device. Watching this design story unfold will be fascinating, and no doubt biotech visionaries like artist Daisy Ginsberg will be grabbing themselves a front row seat.
via Tufts University
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