The Silk Road to Progress

Each winter at Hanover, as at most colleges, the health office offers the opportunity to get vaccinated against the flu to students and community members alike. I never opted for this, already possessing a fully functional immune system and never having had any real issue with the flu in the past, but I knew a good number of people who did in my years there, whether students, local folks, or professors and staff. One year though, the program ran into a bit of a snag, one which is all too common and surprisingly costly.

The vaccines arrived on Friday to the mailroom. Unfortunately, the health staff had already left for the weekend and so that is where those vaccines stayed. All weekend. Without refrigeration. As such, this particular batch of vaccine was lost to the world, the structural integrity of the vaccine’s vital components having been compromised by the relative heat of the Campus Center’s central air. Obviously the campus as a whole was alright, but in other places where vaccines are not mere preventative measures but lifesaving necessities, this issue of temperature control is a serious problem.

An article published in July 2012 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presented a remarkable and promising possibility in the field of vaccine and antibiotic development that could completely change how these medicines are transported. This breakthrough comes in quite the unexpected form too: silk.

According to the article, silk, when used to encapsulate the vaccines or antibiotics, increases stability across a range of temperatures. Researchers tested loss of activity in both types of medicine held in solution compared to those in silk at 4ºC, 25ºC, 37ºC, and 45ºC (using the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine and then penicillin and tetracycline as representative examples).

Across the board, both the vaccine and the antibiotics showed a significant increase in effectiveness over time at increased temperatures, even at a steamy 45ºC (or 113ºF). Antibiotics were monitored up to ten months and vaccines up to six, and both showed significant improvements over the same compounds in solution or in powder form, as they retained remarkable levels of potency compared to other storage methods.

This is a vital move forward for the maintenance and transportation of vaccines. According to the article, the necessity of maintaining the so-called “cold chain” of constant refrigeration can account for 80% of the financial cost of vaccination and can cost vaccine programs between $200-300 million in a year. In many developing countries, where these programs are vital to public health, maintaining this cold chain is particularly difficult and tenuous as they often lie in tropical regions where external temperatures are much higher than the compounds can handle.

By reducing the costs of transportation through the use of silk-encapsulated medicine, these programs could save some serious money normally spent maintaining the all-important cold-chain. This new technology would also help to substantially lower losses of the medicines themselves, since the previously grave threat of temperature control would no longer carry the risk of destroying whole shipments.

The prospect of utilizing silk as a means to stabilize valuable and otherwise delicate medicines would both save money and lives. This is a remarkable find that could serve to revolutionize the way that health organizations approach widespread vaccination and treatment programs. It would also take a lot of pressure off of college mailroom workers when deliveries arrive but nobody shows up to get them in time. But that benefit seems more like an oversight, I suppose.

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