13th March 2018

A flu vaccine in pill form has been created by Welsh scientists

Scientists at Cardiff University have created the world’s first vaccination in pill form – a breakthrough which could “revolutionise” patient care and save the NHS money.

The researchers have managed to create a type of influenza vaccine which can be delivered orally and would therefore negate the need for needles.

And because it is stable at room temperature, the new type of vaccine does not require refrigeration, a process which accounts for most of the cost of delivery of many current vaccines.

Vaccines that do not require refrigeration can be transported more easily and are more suitable for developing countries where it can be difficult to keep things cool.

Professor Andrew Sewell, from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine who led the study, said: “There are many benefits to oral vaccines.

“Not only would they be great news for people who have a fear of needles but they can also be much easier to store and transport, making them far more suitable for use in remote locations where current vaccine delivery systems can be problematic.”

According to the university, the new synthetic and stable vaccine was made in a very novel way – by using “mirror images” of the protein molecules that make up life.

Standard vaccines usually work by introducing a safe form of a germ, or a harmless part of that germ (often proteins) into our bodies.

These foreign proteins stimulate our immune cells which then remember it and launch a stronger attack if they encounter it again.

Normal germs or proteins would usually be digested if eaten, but the new oral form of the vaccine shows that stable “mirror image” forms of parts of such proteins can also induce a protective immune response.

These “mirror image” molecules cannot be digested, opening up the possibility for stable, non-biologic vaccines to be supplied in pill form.

Professor Sewell added: “The carbon molecules that form all proteins on Earth are left-handed molecules, but they also have a non-biologic, right-handed form.

“Even though these two forms of a molecule look identical at first glance they are actually mirror images of each other, just like our right and left hands, and cannot be superimposed on each other.

“The left-handed forms of proteins are easily digested and do not last long in nature. The unnatural, right-handed forms of these molecules are vastly more stable.

“Our demonstration that unnatural molecules, like these mirror image molecules, can be successfully used for vaccination opens up possibilities to explore the use of other unnatural, stable molecular ‘drugs’ as vaccines in the future.”

The breakthrough has been welcomed by healthcare professionals who say a pill version of the flu vaccine could dramatically improve uptake.

Dr Gino Martini, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “A pill-based flu vaccine would make the vaccine much easier to administer from both a patient and healthcare practitioner viewpoint.

“The vaccine is currently delivered by an injection, and as such a healthcare professional must be present.

“For patients who are housebound or living in remote and rural areas, access to a healthcare professional, be that a GP, pharmacist or nurse, can be a challenge.

“If the vaccine could be delivered via a pill, it would remove some of the barriers preventing these patients from receiving the vaccine.

“In addition, a number of patients have a phobia of needles and so avoid having the vaccination.

“A pill-based vaccine would potentially increase vaccine uptake in these patients. During the 2016-17 influenza season in Wales over 760,000 people were immunised against flu, which represents around 24% of the population.

“A pill-based vaccine can only have a positive impact on the number of patients receiving the vaccine each year.”

The Cardiff University scientists say a lot more research will be required to develop such approaches for the entire population and other diseases.

They claim it is likely to take several years before a non-biologic vaccine could be tested in humans.

Divya Shah, from Wellcome’s infection and immunobiology team, said: “This is a very exciting first proof of concept study that could provide a potential route to make vaccines that are thermostable and be administered orally.

“This could reduce the cost and increase accessibility across the globe, however much more research is needed to translate the findings into real-world vaccines.”

The research was funded by Wellcome and BBSRC and is published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.