Revolutionizing disease prevention and treatment

balajiUsing a systems approach coupled with nanoscale technology to develop next-generation vaccines

For more than a decade, Balaji Narasimhan has been determined to improve vaccine deliveryand availability, a mission that’s especially important for parts of the world where access to such life-saving, preventative medicine isn’t always practical or even possible.

One project includes searching for ways to boost the effectiveness of vaccines through experiments with the chemical composition and size of polymer-based nano particle adjuvants used to deliver antigens that trigger the body’s immune response, tailoring these to be released over an extended period of time. Another looks at using nanoparticles to load vaccine components and delivering them “needle free” to improve patient compliance.

Now, Narasimhan, Vlasta Klima Balloun Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is leading a collaborative effort in vaccine development with 43 investigators from five universities, two national labs, three research institutes and five companies. The group will be seeking large-scale funding to launch a national center on nanoscale technologies to develop next-generation vaccines.

The project, entitled “Systems Design of Nanovaccines,” will receive up to $1.5 million over three years as part of Iowa State’s Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research, a program launched by President Steven Leath to support research efforts that could lead to major advances, discoveries and technologies.

The research group plans to use a systems approach for vaccine development. Different from the current step-by-step method, the systems perspective frames the development of new and improved vaccines as a supply chain and considers all the steps—ranging from conceptualization to testing to global distribution and everything in between—as early as possible with built-in feedback at each step.

“The result is a better product made in a shorter period of time because you don’t have to wait for one step to be done to start the next. It could potentially shorten the time it takes to develop new vaccines from 10 years to about 5 years,” Narasimhan says.

Building on his existing research in nanotechnology, Narasimhan adds that formulating the vaccines into nanosized particles is effective because the immune cells the vaccines are trying to activate typically do a good job of internalizing, or taking up, the smaller particles.

Many viruses, such as H1N1 influenza and SARS, are also nanosized. “We are trying to mimic some of those pathogens using synthetic, man-made degradable polymer particles containing proteins specific to the pathogen to essentially trick the immune system into thinking it’s dealing with those pathogens so it mounts a potent immune response,” Narasimhan explains.

In the end, Narasimhan hopes the group’s efforts make vaccines more accessible. That might mean single-dose vaccines that can be self-administered. Or it could be vaccines that don’t have to be refrigerated, which would cut costs in half. Or maybe it’s a combination of those things and more.

“For these sorts of advancements to be made, we really need to operate in a cross-disciplinary setting,” Narasimhan says. “We need to be open to embracing ideas from other fields, as collaborating with experts gives us an advantage to develop better vaccines and with more efficiency.”