Have you ever dreaded getting a vaccine shot because of the needle? Well, many people feel that way including both adults and kids. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that about 1 in 4 adults and 2 in 3 kids are really afraid of needles. However, public health depends on people willing to get vaccinated, which usually means getting a shot with a needle.

Now, a student named Darcy Dunn-Lawless from the University of Oxford in England is researching a new way to give vaccines without needles or pain using ultrasound waves. At the upcoming Acoustics 2023 Sydney conference from December 4-8, she’ll share the latest on this promising technique.

Dunn-Lawless explains that their method uses an acoustic effect called ‘cavitation’. That’s when sound waves cause tiny bubbles to form and pop inside your body. We want to use the concentrated bursts of mechanical energy from bubble collapsing in three main ways, she says. First, to clear paths through the outer dead skin layer and let vaccine molecules pass through. Second, to act like a pump pushing the drug deeper into these passageways. And last, to open the membranes around cells since some vaccines need to enter a cell to work.

Early tests showed their ultrasound method delivered 700 times less vaccine molecules than a regular shot. But surprisingly, it caused a stronger immune response. The researchers think this is because ultrasound targets the skin, which has good immune defenses, instead of muscles like a shot does.

So it could lead to a more effective vaccine that cuts costs and increases effectiveness with little risk of side effects. The main downside Dunn-Lawless sees is that if too much energy is applied to the body, you can damage tissues. But she says prior research shows these harms can be avoided by limiting exposure. A key part of her work is fully identifying the safe thresholds for vaccination using ultrasound.

Dunn-Lawless is part of a bigger team led by Dr. Mike Gray, Professor Bob Carlisle and Professor Constantin Coussios at Oxford’s Biomedical Ultrasound, Bubble Therapy and Targeted Drug Delivery (BUBBL) Lab. Her cavitation method could be especially helpful for DNA vaccines, which are currently hard to administer.

If cavitation can help open membranes blocking access to cells’ nuclei, it could better unlock other DNA vaccine benefits like selective immune responses, low infection risks, and stability during storage. With more research, painless vaccination without needles may soon be possible using ultrasound. The potential to reduce fear and make vaccines easier could really help public health worldwide.


Acoustical Society of America

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