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If fear of needles and injections puts you off having an annual flu jab, a new and virtually pain-free alternative is on the way.

Scientists in America have developed a sticking plaster which delivers the flu vaccine through a hundred tiny hair-like ‘microneedles’ which painlessly penetrate the surface of the skin. The innovation from a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology has now passed key safety tests in its first trial on people and could be widely available within a few years.

It could be obtained over the counter at pharmacies and would be simple enough for people to administer to themselves at home, with no need to visit the doctor. It could also prove extremely useful in developing countries, as the new ‘patch vaccine’ can be stored for up to a year without needing to be kept in a fridge.

Applying the patch is designed to be simple and pain-free. People would simply peel off the backing, just as with a normal sticking plaster, then apply the patch sticky side down to their wrist and keep it in place for 20 minutes. It can then be peeled off and thrown away with normal household waste because the microneedles are designed to dissolve away.

The hundred tiny microneedles in the centre of the sticky patch are coated with the flu vaccine, which is released directly to the large numbers of key immune cells immediately below the skin surface when the patch is applied. It is virtually painless because it only penetrates the outer skin layer, unlike traditional ‘needle and syringe’ vaccinations which go all the way through and into muscle.

The first clinical trials on people involved 100 volunteers, some of whom got the traditional injection in the arm while others applied the microneedle patch to their wrists. Most said the patch method was painless and that they preferred it to the traditional ‘intramuscular injection’. A small number experienced mild redness and itching in the area where the patch was applied, but it lasted only a few days and got better on its own. In terms of effectiveness, the patch method “generated robust antibody responses” in those who used it.

Although more clinical trials are needed before the patch is licensed and made available commercially, medical experts believe it could revolutionise the way in which vaccines are delivered, not only for flu but other infections too.

John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “This study is undoubtedly an important step towards a better way to deliver future vaccines.”

As well as appealing to people who fear traditional injections, it would be a better way to routinely vaccinate young children, who also tend to be scared of needles. Because the patches could be widely available, cost-effective and simple to apply in a pain-free way, it is hoped they would lead to an increased uptake in immunisation.

Although the new ‘flu patch’ is revolutionary, it is not unique. Scientists in Australia are already working on a new “nanopatch” with even smaller vaccine-coated “microprojections”. Their patch has 20,000 of the tiny needles concentrated in an area of just one square centimetre, making them invisible to the naked eye.

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