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Silk technology preserves heat-sensitive drugs

Tue, 07/10/2012 - 5:57am
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Tufts engineers have developed a new way to stabilize vaccines and other heat-sensitive drugs using silk protein. Image: Fiorenzo Omenetto

Researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering have discovered a way to maintain the potency of vaccines and other drugs—that otherwise require refrigeration—for months and possibly years at temperatures above 110 F, by stabilizing them in a silk protein made from silkworm cocoons. Importantly, the pharmaceutical-infused silk can be made in a variety of forms such as microneedles, microvesicles, and films that allow the non-refrigerated drugs to be stored and administered in a single device.

The Tufts findings address a serious obstacle to the effective use of life-saving pharmaceuticals: keeping them cold. Most vaccines, enzymes, and antibodies and many antibiotics and other drugs require constant refrigeration from manufacture to delivery to maintain their effectiveness.

International health experts estimate that nearly half of all global vaccines are lost due to breakdowns in the "cold chain." Even in industrialized nations, loss of drug efficacy at body temperature is a serious problem for advanced pharmaceutical delivery systems such as implantable drug-coated devices.

The research will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Tufts biomedical engineers led by David L. Kaplan, PhD, found that silk stabilization preserved the efficacy of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, as well as penicillin and tetracycline, at a wide range of temperatures (at least up to 60 C or 140 F) significantly better than other options such as collagen encapsulants, dried powders, and solutions.

"Silk protein has a unique structure and chemistry that makes it strong, resistant to moisture, stable at extreme temperatures, and biocompatible, all of which make it very useful for stabilizing antibiotics, vaccines, and other drugs. The fact that we can also make silk into microneedles to deliver a vaccine is an enormous added advantage that can potentially provide a lot of useful solutions to stabilization, distribution, and delivery," says Kaplan, who has been studying silk for two decades.

Nanoscale bubble wrap

Protein function depends on chains of amino acids folding into specific shapes. At higher temperatures or in the presence of water, the chains tend to unfold, then clump together, which renders them inactive. Silk fibroin is composed of interlocked crystalline sheets with numerous tiny hydrophobic pockets. The pockets trap and immobilize bioactive biomolecules—keeping them from unfolding—and also protect them from moisture. The end result is like enveloping a fragile material in a nanoscale Bubble Wrap.

According to the paper’s first author, Jeney Zhang, who is pursuing a Tufts doctorate in chemical and biological engineering, silk stabilization has "the potential to significantly change the way we store and deliver pharmaceuticals, especially in the developing world."

Measles is one of the leading killers of children worldwide. Without refrigeration, the MMR vaccine rapidly loses potency. But after six months of storage in freeze-dried silk films at body temperature (37  C) and at 113 F (45 C), all components of the vaccine retained approximately 85% of their initial potency.

Silk-stabilized antibiotics also retained high activity. Storage in silk films at body temperature resulted in no activity loss for tetracycline, compared with an 80% loss within four weeks of storage in solution. Even for films stored at 140 F (60 C), tetracycline activity loss was only 10 percent after two weeks, compared with 100% loss after two weeks of storage in solution. No activity loss was observed for penicillin stored in silk films at 60 C for 30 days; in contrast, total activity loss was observed within 24 hours when penicillin was stored in solution at the same temperature.

Silk stabilization also protected the tetracycline against degradation by light, a benefit that the researchers did not anticipate, according to co-author and research assistant professor Bruce Panilaitis.

So far, Panilaitis adds, the researchers haven't found any pharmaceutical that they have been unable to stabilize. This could be a "universal storage and handling system."

Source: Tufts University

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