Seashells to deliver new drugs and vaccines

Development could hold the key to preserving and extending the shelf-life of vaccines in extreme temperatures without refrigeration

The research was inspired by a sea urchin’s outer shell, which supports and protects its fragile body

Australian scientists have developed a protective seashell-inspired capsule to preserve the active biological ingredients needed to create promising new drugs. Published in the journal Nature Communications, the development overcomes a critical challenge in biomedicine by ensuring important proteins remain effective in hostile environments.

The new shell, developed by CSIRO, The University of Adelaide and the Australian Synchrotron, could hold the key to preserving and extending the shelf-life of vaccines in extreme temperatures without refrigeration and in a cost-effective way.

'Like a house is made of bricks, living organisms are made up of proteins which play a critical role in the body,' said CSIRO lead researcher Dr Kang Liang. 'But unlike bricks, proteins are fragile and their function alters or perishes when exposed to heat, pressure and pollutants.

CSIRO lead researcher Dr Kang Liang

'Inspired by a sea urchin’s outer shell, which supports and protects its fragile body, we’ve come up with a porous shell that grows around important proteins such as enzymes to protect them on the inside. Our shell offers a low-cost solution to protecting proteins for making and enhancing drugs and other products where sensitivity has long been an issue.'

The shell is made of an extremely porous material called metal organic frameworks (MOFs) that has a flexible and customisable cage-like structure. 'The shell’s tiny cage holes are similar to a sea creature’s pores and are designed to capture, trap or release specific biomolecules,' Dr Liang explained.

CSIRO research team leader, Dr Paolo Falcaro said they are now seeking industry partners to develop the technology for specific applications including pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, chemical and food processing, water decontamination and screening for genetic disease.

'We are currently investigating important biomolecules including DNA, antibodies and those used in vaccines,' Dr Falcaro said. 'Based on our laboratory trials, the shell could protect a vaccine vial for only a few dollars and at a commercial scale we would work to make it even cheaper. This cost is insignificant when a vaccine can cost up to hundreds of dollars per dose.'

Companies interested in developing the shell technology should contact enquiries@csiro.au . The full paper can be accessed at Nature Communications.

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