British scientists have announced a new technique for making vaccinations that could save millions of lives in developing countries by eliminating the need to refrigerate the medicines.
The medical breakthrough announced in London harnesses the same biological process that lets desert plants dehydrate during drought and then revive when rains return, sometimes hundreds of years later.
Researchers from Britain's Cambridge Biostability Limited say animal tests have already proven the vaccines are effective. They says the next stage is to have an Indian company, Panacea Biotec, produce vaccines for human clinical trials that will run for about three years.
The goal is to mass-produce vaccines that do not need to be refrigerated and can be stored for long periods at room temperature. That could lead to about 10 million more children a year getting inoculated against the major childhood diseases. About two million children die each year of diseases that can be prevented by vaccination.
The project is receiving about a $1.5 million from Britain's foreign aid agency, the Department for International Development. A doctor for the agency, Stuart Tyson, explained the potential significance of the technique.
"This technology, why it is so exciting, I think, is that it does offer the potential to deliver vaccines outside of any cold chain," he said. "No refrigerated trucks from the manufacturer to the airport, no refrigerated carriage on the plane to Malawi or Zambia or wherever, no refrigerated processes in the central medical stores or in the ambulances that take the vaccines to the district level, to the health center level and out into the most remote areas. And that is where I think the real excitement is."
The World Health Organization says keeping vaccines cold costs about one-quarter of a billion dollars a year, and nearly half of all vaccines produced go bad because of breakdowns along the way.
Besides combating childhood diseases, scientists say the technology could lead to the production of vaccinations against biological-terror agents, inoculations that could be stored long-term and then distributed to military and emergency response teams in case of a biological attack or threat.