Parents, what if your child could be protected against disease with a mere scratch on the arm instead of a traumatic shot? According to researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, that day may be on the horizon: New research shows that vaccines applied to the skin may be more effective than those injected into the muscle.
Though conventional medicine has focused on the way cells circulating in our bloodstreams can defend against reinfection, new studies show that cells in the skin and lungs may also be able to fight pathogens effectively.
"Right now, we deliver vaccines into muscle . . . Muscle has never evolved to fight off infection," Dr. Thomas Kupper, chairman of dermatology at Brigham and Women's, told the Boston Globe. "We think that we really need to rethink the way we're delivering vaccines."
Instead of giving an injection, vaccines against smallpox were first administered using a needle to scratch the skin before a live cowpox virus was applied, he explained. The vaccine's success may be due, in part, to the way it was administered, he told The Globe.
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For years, scientists have known about certain specialized immune system cells known as "resident memory T cells" found in the skin. Kupper's study, which was published recently in the journal "Nature," focused on mice; he and his colleagues discovered that mice who had been exposed to a skin virus and had immune cells in their skin were more able to recover from future infections than mice that only had immune cells in their blood.
The next step: Figuring out how those particular skin cells work with our immune systems -- and how to put them to good use.
Researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech have found that vaccine patches -- small squares riddled with incredibly small microneedles -- are more effective at delivering protection against the flu than vaccines injected under the skin or into the muscle.
"Our research reveals new details of the complex but efficient immune response to influenza virus provided by microneedle skin patches," Dr. Richard Compans, a professor of professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory, told Science Daily.
"Despite the success of vaccination against influenza, the virus has many subtypes, mutates rapidly and continues to elude complete and long-term protection, and therefore requires annual vaccination with an updated vaccine each year," he said. "New vaccine formulations and delivery methods such as vaccine-coated microneedle patches could provide an improved protective response, which would be of particular benefit to those at high risk of related complications."
In other words: The patch is painless, and could make getting annual shots (and still coming down with the flu anyway) a thing of the past.