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Pollen could help deliver more effective vaccines, says DARPA

Pollen grains

The tiny pollen grains that cause untold misery to many people with allergies every spring and summer could be a key in delivering effective vaccines against natural and man-made health threats, according to a U.S. military research agency.

According to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA), one of the researchers receiving mentorship and funding through the agency’s 2012 Young Faculty Awards (YFA) program is a scientist studying novel methods for packaging and delivery of orally consumed vaccines. His tool of choice is pollen, said DARPA on Nov. 27.

Harvinder Gill, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Texas Tech University, is looking to understand, engineer and test a pollen-based oral vaccination platform to protect against a range of infectious diseases, said the agency. If successful, his research could lead to more effective, more easily administered and more easily transported vaccines for deployed troops, it said.

Pollen has several things going for it as a vaccine delivery vehicle, according to DARPA. The exterior of a pollen grain, it explained, is a shell made of a naturally durable, non-allergenic polymer. The contents of the shell that contain the nasty allergy-inducing plant proteins and fats can be cleaned out, rendering the shell itself neutral, it said. The leftover shell husk could be filled with vaccines and delivered into the body through oral ingestion.

The pollen shell’s natural toughness would help the vaccine survive conditions inside the body, allowing it to pass through the intestinal lining to deliver vaccine, said DARPA. 

An orally-consumed vaccine is efficient, painless, self-administered and can induce both systemic and mucosal immune responses, thus enhancing protection, said DARPA.

Traditional pills, said the agency, can be limited by the human body’s natural processes. When patients swallow vaccines and other medications, stomach acids and digestive processes can degrade the medication, it said, but because pollen shells are durable, they can potentially survive inside the body and safeguard a vaccine until it can be delivered.

 “DARPA already has a large portfolio of biology programs aimed at protecting the health of U.S. warfighters from threats known and unknown,” said Jay Schnitzer, director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, which currently oversees the YFA program. “We actively support innovative basic research like that conducted by YFA recipients because it helps open new areas for exploration and fosters valuable, lasting relationships between DoD and the research community.”

More information about Dr. Gill’s research may be found at www.gill-lab.che.ttu.edu. His laboratory is currently investigating pollen grains, micro-needles, gold nanoparticles and polymeric micro-nano particles for mucosal vaccination and cancer drug delivery.

DARPA anticipates releasing the next YFA solicitation in late 2012. Interested candidates should please watch http://www.grants.gov and http://www.grants.gov for updates.


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