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Vaccines without needles? UT Dallas researchers think it may only take a puff of air

Yalini Wijesundara, a graduate student in the lab, using the MOFjet. She previously researched other jet injectors dating back to the 1960s that use compressed gas to inject a narrow stream of fluid.
University of Texas at Dallas
Yalini Wijesundara, a graduate student in the lab, using the MOFjet. She previously researched other jet injectors dating back to the 1960s that use compressed gas to inject a narrow stream of fluid.

Many people dread the thought of a vaccine because of the needle, but a UT Dallas research team is working on a possible alternative – pushing vaccines through the skin with a puff of air. Principal investigator Dr. Jeremiah Gassensmith, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Texas at Dallas, explains to KERA's Sam Baker how the injector works.

Conceptually, it's pretty simple. It uses a puff of air to shoot microscopic particles into your skin, and those microscopic particles contain the therapeutic. We've been primarily focused on using it to deliver vaccines.

What we use is something called a metal-organic framework, which is this sort of new material that makes the vaccines really thermally stable. It allows you to store them outside of the refrigerator. And so that's a really big benefit because without needing refrigeration, you can save a lot of money on transport and storage and manufacture and that sort of stuff. 

I know it doesn't involve a needle, but still, you're injecting something into the skin here. Doesn't that hurt at all?

No, it really doesn't. I shot myself with it and it feels like you're getting shot with a Nerf bullet. It doesn't hurt in any way whatsoever, actually. You can feel it. It's not like a secret. You've been hit with it. Much like, you know, if you get hit with a Nerf bullet by one of your kids or something and there's some kind of sensation or whatever.

But it's not painful. 


What brought on this idea?

Actually, the idea came about during the pandemic. I was like everybody else, bored at home during the early stages of the pandemic, and knew that eventually, we would have to have some kind of vaccine. And I knew eventually that that would probably be something that would need to be injected. And I was pretty confident that people would freak out about that in their own unique ways.

And so one thing I noticed was that there's a company called McMaster Carr that was still accepting orders and they are still shipping relatively quickly. So I just built this thing at home. Of course, I didn't have any labs, so I mostly used to shoot table salt and stuff.

Eventually, everything opened up. We were able to return if we have COVID-related stuff. I gave it to a student and with her we developed it into essentially a fairly easy-to-use vaccine delivery system. 

I understand this idea of an air injector is not totally new.

Yeah, veterans probably would be very well aware of these devices that would spray a jet of air that pushed a liquid into your skin. And essentially that works in the same way as a power washer. It just is a really high-speed flow of liquid that goes into the skin.

One of the reasons they actually don't use them in the military anymore, really for people anywhere, is because the liquid that they shoot out goes into the skin. But then, skin is not a sponge. It only can hold so much fluid. And so some of that fluid comes back out and it would get hepatitis onto the tips of the jet injectors that they use.

Back then, the idea of using water as a carrier has a lot of, you know, cross-contamination risks. Plus, it's painful. 

But for those people who just are absolutely afraid of needles, do you suppose this is enough to get them a bit more relaxed about accepting a vaccine?

I think it's a start, and in principle, it really is simple enough that one could do it at home. It's one of the benefits that is very easily transmitted to vaccines and insulin and other drugs like that because those drugs really shouldn't be injected into the vein. We just inject them into the muscle right now or the skin and that can be safely automated in some ways.

You can design an auto-injector and basically, you just push it against the skin and push the button and it delivers exactly where it needs to be. That's the sort of delivery technology that would be really good in large catastrophes where you don't have skilled people around to use needles and you just need somebody who can push a button. 


Afraid of Needles? A Puff of Air Could Deliver Your Next Vaccine

Carrier gas triggered controlled biolistic delivery of DNA and protein therapeutics from metal-organic frameworks

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.