After 160 years, it’s time to move on from the needle and syringe

CSL Florey Medal

Professor Mark Kendall, University of Queensland

2016 CSL Young Florey Medal


mark_kendall Professor Mark Kendall is planning to dispatch the 160-year-old needle and syringe to history. This Queensland rocket scientist has invented a new vaccine technology that’s painless, uses a fraction of the dose, puts the vaccine just under the skin, and doesn’t require a fridge.

Human trials of Mark’s Nanopatch are underway in Australia, and the concept has broad patent coverage. It’s being supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Merck and the WHO. A polio vaccine trial is being planned for Cuba in 2017.  

But it’s not been an easy path. Mark has had to push the science and business worlds to see the value of a new approach to vaccine delivery. It took 70 presentations before he secured funding for the UQ spin-out company Vaxxas.

While he was growing up, Mark wanted to be a fighter pilot. Instead he turned to rocket science, exploring hypersonics on one of the world’s fastest wind tunnels—a UQ facility, with support from NASA.  He was on track for a promising career exploring the potential of hypersonic travel at over five times the speed of sound.

But he was approached after a lecture and asked to turn his knowledge of rocketry to vaccine delivery. He joined a team at the University of Oxford that was planning to deliver vaccines with a hand-held rocket. He helped them develop PowderJect, a device that released vaccine particles at twice the speed of sound, allowing them to penetrate just under the skin.

PowderJect successfully completed phase 3 clinical trials and was bought by Pfizer for over $500 million, but to date it hasn’t been released to market.

Mark then responded to a call from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seeking ideas for delivery of vaccines in developing countries. It’s in these countries that the limitations of needles and syringes are most obvious.

Conventional wet vaccines have to be kept cold to the point of delivery and that can be a challenge in delivering to remote communities. Then there’s needle phobia, which affects 20 per cent of the population. The needle and syringe have been in use for 160 years. That was long before we discovered the immune system. Today we know that there is an important community of immune cells in the upper layers of the skin. If we can deliver vaccines direct to those immune cells we can reduce doses and increase efficacy.

PowderJect was one way to reach the skin immune cells. But Mark realised that the technology was too complex and too expensive to meet the requirements of the Gates Foundation. So he went back to first principles. The result is Nanopatch. It’s a 1 cm square piece of silicon with 20,000 microscopic needles engineered on one side. Coat the needles with dry vaccine, push it gently but firmly against the skin, and the vaccine is delivered just under the outer layer of skin.

Learning from his experience with PowderJect, Mark worked on the science and the commercialisation in parallel, creating a spin-out company early in the development of the patch. He made more than 70 presentations to potential financiers until he’d secured the funding he needed to make Nanopatch a reality.

Today the company Vaxxas has employed about 50 people and started human trials to determine how people respond to Nanopatch. There’s support from Merck and from the Gates Bill and Melinda Foundation. And the World Health Organization (WHO) has started a project to test the Nanopatch for polio vaccine delivery in developing countries.

Despite the global interest, Mark is keen to ensure that Australia continues to drive the development of the technology.

“We’ve got a chance to help stimulate fresh lines of innovation and biotechnology here,” Mark says. “There’s 14 million deaths per year due to infectious disease and so my vision for the Nanopatch is to get more effective vaccines to more people and help save lives.”

Mark Kendall is Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at The University of Queensland. He is the founder of Vaxxas and has served as Chief Technology Officer and a director of the company. He also leads the Queensland Node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology.

He speaks widely on the need to reinvent vaccination, including at the World Economic Forum and in a Ted Talk that has been viewed nearly one million times.

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