Startups’ Patch Technologies Could Extend Reach of Vaccines

A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. In total, 67 million children missed out on one or more potentially lifesaving vaccines during the pandemic
A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. In total, 67 million children missed out on one or more potentially lifesaving vaccines during the pandemic


  • Patches may solve ‘last mile’ challenge of delivering vaccines in remote locations

In several countries the effort to eradicate measles runs into the logistical obstacle of insufficient cold storage for vaccines.

Patches from startups including Micron Biomedical and Vaxxas could overcome this difficulty and extend the reach of vaccines in nations where measles outbreaks occur because of relatively low vaccination rates. Measles vaccine doses are sensitive to heat and must be kept cold.

That isn’t a concern in the U.S., but is an obstacle to vaccinations in remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa and other locations where access to electricity and refrigeration is limited, researchers say.

Atlanta-based Micron says its patch significantly reduces or eliminates the need for cold storage of drugs and vaccines. The company, which recently increased its Series A venture funding to $17 million, in May said it received promising results from an early study of a vaccine patch for measles and rubella—another viral disease—that was conducted in Gambia, a West African country.

Vaxxas, backed with about $75 million in venture funding, has a measles-rubella vaccine patch that recently completed an early study. It expects a larger trial to begin next year.

Micron and Vaxxas, which have received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support this work, say they expect to make little if any profit on measles-rubella patches. Both also are applying their technology to vaccines with potential applications in the U.S. and other high-income countries.

But they say they have a sense of urgency to tackle this global-health threat.

“The motivation is as high as it can possibly be to get it to market in a safe and effective way," Micron Chief Executive Steven Damon said.

Measles caused 128,000 deaths in 2021, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly all deaths occur in low-income countries or those with weak health infrastructures.

Conventional measles vaccination involves inserting a syringe into a vial to draw a diluting solution that is injected into a second vial containing the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once mixed, the vaccine is drawn up and injected into the arm.

Vaccines delivered through the Micron and Vaxxas patches are in formulations that are stable at higher temperatures, the companies say.

Micron’s patch uses tiny needles that dissolve in the skin to release the vaccine. The study of its measles-rubella patch in Gambia found that the patch triggered an immune response similar to an injected vaccine, Micron said in May. The study enrolled 45 adults, 120 toddlers and 120 infants who were randomized to receive the vaccine through the patch or injection, Micron said.

Cold storage isn’t the only obstacle to measles vaccination in sub-Saharan Africa, said Dr. Ed Clarke, who led the study in Gambia. Others include the distance many people live from medical care, he said.

But patches could help solve the last-mile challenge of delivering vaccines to children in remote areas, he said. Vaccination rates of 95% or greater are needed to eliminate measles, but sub-Saharan African countries typically fall short, he added.

“There’s a big gap between the level of coverage you need and the coverage that’s being achieved in this part of the world," said Clarke, head of infant immunology for the U.K.’s Medical Research Council unit in Gambia, which is part of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Larger studies are needed to confirm the efficacy of Micron’s measles-rubella patch, he said.

The patch eliminates the need to handle needles that must be properly disposed of, said James Goodson, a senior scientist and epidemiologist in the CDC’s global immunization division and a co-investigator on the study. That would make it easier to conduct door-to-door vaccination campaigns, he said.

“The potential public-health impact is huge for this technology," Goodson said.

Vaxxas’ patch uses tiny needles that are coated with the vaccine. Its patch, applied through an applicator, delivers the vaccine in seconds, CEO David Hoey said.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Vaxxas also is advancing a seasonal influenza vaccine delivered through its patch technology.

Patches are a promising approach because they could be a solution to challenges such as the need for cold storage and patients’ preference to avoid needles, said Glenn Rockman founder and managing partner of Adjuvant Capital, a venture-capital firm that invests in startups seeking to make medical care more accessible in developing countries, which hasn’t invested in Micron or Vaxxas.

Patch developers face hurdles such as convincing regulators their approaches are as effective as injected vaccines, he said, adding that other potential solutions include oral and intranasal delivery.

Dr. Matt Goldman, a partner with Micron investor J2 Ventures, said the Micron technology has several possible uses in the U.S. For example, drugs and vaccines that are now injected by a medical professional potentially could be self-administered, he said.

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