Hepatitis B is an incredibly common – and deadly – infection that affects hundreds of thousands of people each year. Children in developing countries are especially prone to contract and die from hepatitis B.
High rates of infection in developing countries are partially due to the fact that it is difficult to safely store intravenous vaccines. For this reason, researchers around the world have been hard at work to develop a form of the hepatitis B vaccine that can be administered orally.
Oral vaccines are challenging to create because our digestive system is designed to break down anything that enters it. Oral vaccines can be easily destroyed before making the body immune.
However, a recent partnership among researchers from the University of Sao Paulo, the Butantan Institute, and the Neils Bohr Institute shed new light on how we might develop an oral vaccine that can survive the conditions of the digestive system. This remarkable collaboration brought together experts from vastly different fields, from physicists to biologists to virologists.
For years now, the Sao Paulo-based researchers have known that a particular silica-based material called SBA-15 can be used to encapsulate oral hepatitis B vaccine and protect them in the digestive system. However, the results were not consistent – the SBA-15 shell was only effective some of the time.
With the help of a group of physicists, they are now closer to perfecting the oral hepatitis B vaccine. With a state-of-the-art three-dimensional imaging technique, the physicists were able to produce a highly accurate picture of the capsule and observe the behavior of the vaccine inside of the capsule. The researchers were able to observe the vaccine’s behavior at a microscopic level.
An effective oral hepatitis B vaccine that can be mass produced would save lives, while also being cost-effective and easier to administer at a large scale in developing countries, where children face the greatest hepatitis B threat.
Currently this same research team is developing a combination oral vaccine that immunizes people against diphtheria and tetanus. However, their ultimate goal is to create a single oral vaccine that guards against whooping cough, diphtheria, hepatitis B, tetanus, polio, and Hib.