Customized soap bubbles for vaccine and drug delivery

Posted Jan 30, 2015 by Karen Graham
Soap bubbles filling our warm bath give us great pleasure. But scientists with the University of Maryland has taken bubbles to new heights, by discovering a way of coating them with biomolecules, making them a delivery system for drugs and vaccines.
Functionalized catanionic vesicles (red) bind to and fuse with a bacterial cell surface.
Functionalized catanionic vesicles (red) bind to and fuse with a bacterial cell surface.
University of Maryland
Professors Philip DeShong and Daniel Stein of the University of Maryland started tagging soap bubbles with biomolecules over a decade ago, but they never expected the technology to materialize into a vehicle for delivering medications to fight bacteria, viruses and cancer.
Today, researchers are covering soap bubbles with a microscopic material that acts as a disguise, fooling the human body's immune system into thinking the capsule is a disease-producing invader. Not only is the technology flexible, but it is cost-effective and extremely efficient, drawing a lot of interest from both public and private companies for use as a drug and vaccine delivery system.
The special soap bubbles are actually referred to as "functionalized catanionic surfactant vesicles" by the researchers. They are made of a combination of soap-like components that turn into capsules when mixed together. The scientists claim their delivery system has "significant advantages" over other systems on the market today, such as liposomes, forming more quickly, lasting longer and most important, being cheaper to produce.
“We have created a technology platform that allows us to make drug and vaccine delivery vehicles that have previously been very difficult to prepare,” said DeShong. “If someone provides us with an antigen, it is possible for us to formulate it into a vaccine, purify it and have 1,000 doses ready within 72 hours.”
In 2007, DeShong and Stein, formed a start-up company, SD Nanosciences. They have four pending patents on the commercialization of their drug and vaccine delivery system technology, having exclusively licensed the technology from UMD.
“Phil was attaching things to gold nanoparticles, and I asked him if he could conjugate proteins and carbohydrates to nanoparticles,” said Stein in a press release. Stein is also chief scientific officer of SD Nanosciences. “When he said the process would be straightforward chemically, I knew we had something that could be very interesting biologically.”
In May of 2014, the researchers received a $1 million grant from MedImmune, a global arm of AstraZeneca. This was used to further test and evaluate the delivery system. DeShong, the president of SD Nanosciences said, “This research will help us answer questions such as: How general is the technology for creating vaccines? How well does it work to create a desired vaccine? Can you use it to create different types of vaccines?”
The soap bubbles or catatonic surfactant vesicles act in different ways, depending on what is being targeted. In the case of vaccines, the immune system sees the capsule as a foreign object, based on the antigens sticking to its exterior. The immune system breaks up the capsule, creating an immune response, destroying the antigens. The body will hopefully destroy any cells with the same antigens it encounters.
For use as a drug delivery system, the vesicles will work a little differently. For example, in cancer drugs, the capsules are filled with the drug of choice and coated on the outside with a targeting agent selective to cancer cells. The capsule will attach to cancer cells rather than normal cells. The researchers claim this will reduce the amount of drugs used and reduce side-effects.
“In principle, there are thousands of viruses we could make vaccine against, there are thousands of bacterial infections we could make vaccines against, and there are thousands of drugs we could deliver in a targeted way into the body,” said DeShong. “We’ve created a flexible platform with these decorated soap bubbles that should be able to make them all of them.”