A team at Georgia Tech tinkered together a battery-free electroporation device to deliver DNA vaccines, which is inspired by BBQ lighters. The details of the workings of the vaccine injector are described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The electric ‘spark’ that ignites the gas flowing from a BBQ gas lighter has been repurposed to provide the power behind the electroporation. The battery-free piezoelectric sparking mechanism from a lighter is attached to a microneedle patch that acts as an array of electrodes. When the device is pressed against the skin, it initiates electroporation and delivery of DNA vaccines inside cells in the treated area.
Electroporation involves applying a pulse of electricity to a tissue, which causes tiny pores to open in cell membranes, allowing genetic material to pass into the cells unhindered. The technique is effective as a means to deliver genetic material, but electroporation equipment is typically expensive and bulky, meaning it isn’t suitable for routine use outside of the lab.
Many of the new COVID-19 vaccines are composed of DNA. At present, this means that the DNA is encased in lipid nanoparticles to help it enter our cells. However, such lipid particles increase the complexity and expense of these vaccines, and can mean that they require cold storage. This makes them less accessible to many countries without cold-chain transport.
Electroporation may be a way to deliver the vaccines into our cells without the need for lipid nanoparticles. This group of Georgia Tech researchers has developed an inexpensive way to achieve this by combining microneedle technology with the piezoelectric sparking mechanism from a BBQ lighter, and have called their device the ePatch.
“My lab figured out that you could use something all of us are familiar with on the Fourth of July when we do a barbecue — a barbecue lighter,” said Saad Bhamla, a researcher involved in the study, in a Georgia Tech announcement. “Our aha moment was the fact that it doesn’t have a battery or plug into the wall, unlike conventional electroporation equipment. And these lighter components cost just pennies, while currently available electroporators cost thousands of dollars each.”
So far, the researchers have tested the device with mice, and it appears to be promising in terms of vaccine delivery. “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that it would be successful when Georgia Tech asked me to collaborate on this project,” said Chinglai Yang, another of the developers. “Surprisingly, even in the first try, it went far beyond my expectations. Using this method with the same amount of vaccine, the ePatch induced an almost tenfold improved immune response over intramuscular immunization or intradermal injection without electroporation. It also showed no lasting effects to the mice’s skin. What this means is that it is easier to achieve protection.”
Here’s a Georgia Tech video with more about the technology: