BIOMEDICINE OF THE FUTURE
“Vaccine” was the word that appeared most often in global headlines in 2020. It is certain to continue to appear just as frequently for quite some time to come. Eight years ago, however, when the subject had not yet become the centre of so much attention, Australian biomedical engineer Mark Kendall presented a revolutionary method of vaccination without the need for an injection. “I invented the Nanopatch to change the way vaccines were administered. Needles and syringes have been used since 1853 and continue to be the main method of vaccination. I had the idea of not only replacing needles, but also improving the way they function by re-designing a device from scratch, which could administer the precise dose required to the immune cells, just below the surface of the skin. At the same time, I wanted to produce vaccines that were dry by nature, and so wouldn't need to be refrigerated,” explains Kendall, who has spent over 20 years applying his knowledge of engineering to find solutions for world health problems.
The project, which was originally inspired by the complexities of space technology, received the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2012. With this encouragement, the researcher took on his most ambitious challenge to date: to get his invention to work in a challenging location, such as in a rural area of Papua New Guinea. “Every year there are 14 million deaths caused by infectious diseases, and most of these occur in developing countries. The main reason for this is a lack of access to vaccines. The Rolex prize enabled me to use the Nanopatch in areas of this kind and has produced excellent results: we have succeeded in creating enhanced vaccines with no need for either needles or refrigeration,” reveals the lecturer from the Australian National University.
The Rolex prize enabled me to use the Nanopatch in areas of this kind and has produced excellent results: we have succeeded in creating enhanced vaccines with no need for either needles or refrigeration.
They are self-adhesive patches that penetrate the external surface of the skin and apply the right amount of vaccine in a more precise way than a needle, until they reach the key cells of the immune system. It also has the added advantage that it doesn‘t rely on conventional transport constraints and can be administered by anyone.
The fact that it can be self-administered is vital in a pandemic-type scenario. Clinical tests are currently being carried out with the patch for various illnesses, including flu, measles and polio.
Personalised medical treatment
“The company is now applying everything we have learned to make functional and affordable devices suitable for precision medicine. The idea is to administer the right medication at the right time and in the right place,” explains Kendall.
In addition to providing a tailor-made treatment, the Australian scientist also developed patches, which led to another major invention: a microwearable device that allows for the instant diagnosis and monitoring of patients’ needs. It resembles a small sticker, which is equipped with layers of electronic sensors that read the patient’s vital signs in a minimally invasive and totally painless way. “If we are capable of measuring each individual’s trajectory and adjusting their treatment accordingly, we will bring about a major change. This is one of the reasons why we invented microwearables, which monitor patients constantly,” he adds.
Our microwearable device is able to detect that a heart attack is taking place before the symptoms appear.
The size of a stamp, these discrete plastic triangles are placed on the skin like a plaster and fitted with smart electronic sensors. These detect what is going on inside the wearer’s body and report directly to the patient’s smartphone, their doctor or the relevant hospital. He experienced the vital importance of this device in person when one of his relatives suffered a heart attack. Kendall started to wonder whether the attack could have been diagnosed before it happened. Achieving this would prevent a large part of the 20 million deaths due to cardiovascular disease every year.
That‘s why today the WearOptimo device sends early warnings when there is damage to the muscular tissue of the heart. “Our microwearable device is able to detect that a heart attack is taking place before the symptoms appear,” reveals the researcher. This allows doctors to act in time to save the patient’s life. In addition to preventing fatalities, this highly effective sticker is designed to enable doctors to adjust treatment to the patient’s condition at any given time. “Tailor-made” procedures open up a wide range of solutions, from chemotherapy to providing optimised cure for patients with Coronavirus.
“The Rolex Awards for Enterprise encouraged me to be more innovative and courageous in my work. They also put me in contact with some incredible people, including experts who look beyond the horizon to see the challenges of the future,” says the Laureate. Kendall says he is far from the stereotypical scientist with glasses and a white coat, who works in isolation like a robot. “We‘re born analogue and not digital, so it’s impossible for us to work alone. It‘s this human factor that makes things work,” he remarks. His aim is to get his ideas out of the lab and into action as quickly as possible. While humanity is demonstrating its record-breaking ability to develop and produce vaccines, this Australian researcher is leading the way to a new technology that will improve the way medical treatments are provided all over the world.
- This article was created in partnership with:
- Forbes Argentina