Substituting inhalable, powder vaccines for shots may sound like an ideal alternative for those with phobias of needles, but for millions of children in developing countries, it could be the difference between life and death.
Every day, measles kills 500 people, most of whom have no access to vaccinations, according to University of Colorado at Boulder Professor Robert Sievers. Also a fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Sievers -- with support from students and research colleagues -- has been working to put an end to such preventable deaths by developing a cheaper, easier-to-distribute and needle-free version of the traditional measles vaccine.
In recognition of his work, he was honored with the first Governor's Award for Research Impact in the public health category on Feb. 17 at a reception at the governor's residence. Gov. Bill Ritter presented the five research impact awards during the event.
Another of the award recipients, Judah Levine, who received the Governor's Award for Research Impact in the area of information technology, also has a CU-Boulder connection. Levine is a fellow at JILA, a joint institute of CU and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and an adjoint professor of physics who teaches CU students. He was honored for developing the NIST Internet Time Service, which allows users to synchronize computer clocks via the Internet.
Trained as an atmospheric chemist, Sievers first began to apply his expertise to public health in the 1990s after his son became a successful physician. In 1997, Sievers discovered that therapeutic, medical aerosols could be created by mimicking the way microscopic particles and droplets form in the atmosphere. "We discovered that inhalable aerosols are especially promising for preventing and treating respiratory diseases such as measles, flu and tuberculosis," he said.
"Professor Sievers' work will directly benefit human health in developing parts of the world," said Suzanne van Drunick of CIRES, who nominated Sievers for the Governor's Award. "The World Health Organization expects the demand for an inhaled aerosol vaccine like the one he is developing to reach 400 million doses per year."
To create an inhalable vaccine, Sievers and his team of students and researchers developed a patented process known as the "Carbon Dioxide-Assisted Nebulization with a Bubble Dryer," dubbed CAN-BD. In a nutshell, weakened measles virus is mixed with "supercritical" carbon dioxide -- part gas, part liquid -- to produce microscopic bubbles and droplets, which then are dried to make an inhalable powder.
To administer a dose of the vaccine, the powder is puffed into a small, cylindrical, plastic sack, with an opening like the neck of a plastic water bottle. By taking one deep breath from the sack, a child is effectively vaccinated, said Sievers.
The inhalable vaccine boasts several advantages over its needle and water-dependent counterparts, said Sievers. It's painless, less likely to lose potency with time, lighter to transport and less expensive to manufacture -- all key for large-scale distribution to remote regions of developing countries. Eventually, Sievers believes the cost can be lowered to as little as 10 cents per dose.
"Another big advantage of doing away with under-the-skin injections is that we minimize needle sharing and disease transfer," said Dave McAdams, a CU-Boulder graduate student working with the Sievers group.
This year, Serum Institute of India will take over a pilot-scale production of the powder vaccine, and the first phase of human vaccination tests are expected to take place within the next two years. The vaccine will be tested in three phases before it is commercially distributed, said McAdams.
In addition to receiving the Governor's Award, Sievers will be presented with the American Chemical Society's prestigious Astellas Prize in Public Health this summer for his research.
CIRES is jointly supported by CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. To learn more about Sievers' research, visit cires.colorado.edu/people/sievers. For information on the CO-LABS Feb. 18 conference, visit www.co-labs.org.