Innovation That Matters

The ultra-low-cost ePatch vaccination device | Photo source Candler Hobbs / Georgia Tech

BBQ lighter fitted with microneedles used to deliver vaccines

Health & Wellbeing

Researchers have developed an ingenious vaccine delivery system that uses re-engineered BBQ lighters

Spotted: Electroporation uses short electric pulses to drive molecules into cells. It is potentially very effective at delivering vaccines, but the equipment required to deliver it is bulky, complex, and expensive. Now, researchers at Georgia Tech have found a much easier way to use electroporation to deliver vaccines. Surprisingly, the new method involves a re-purposed BBQ lighter. 

Researchers re-engineered the insides of the lighter to create the same electric field in the skin as the bulkier electroporation machines. This was paired with microneedle technology from Georgia Tech’s Laboratory for Drug Delivery. Although microneedles are commonly used in cosmetics, they are not generally used as electrodes. The researchers adapted them by pairing the tiny electroporation pulse with microneedle electrodes to create an electrical interface with the skin. 

The microneedle-based system, dubbed ‘ePatch’, uses voltages similar to conventional electroporation, but with much shorter pulses and using electrodes that penetrate just .01 inches into the skin. The shorter pulses and shallow electrodes minimise pain and involuntary muscle twitching. 

In tests, the ePatch has proven effective at delivering vaccines. Chinglai Yang, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Emory University School of Medicine, helped test the delivery system. Yang explains that, “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that it would be successful when Georgia Tech asked me to collaborate on this project. Surprisingly, even in the first try, it went far beyond my expectations. Using this method with the same amount of vaccine, the ePatch induced an almost tenfold improved immune response over intramuscular immunization or intradermal injection.” 

Drug delivery systems may not seem as important as developing new drugs themselves. But improved delivery can help with everything from improving drug action to reducing side-effects and democratising access to medicine. This is why we are seeing a wide range of innovations in drug delivery, including using cartilage to delivery anti-inflammatory drugs and micro-robots steered by ultrasound for targeted drug delivery. 

Written By: Lisa Magloff



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