60-Second Science

Silk Protein Lets Vaccines Stand the Heat

Encased in silk protein, vaccines and antibiotics survived tropical temperatures without refrigeration. Cynthia Graber reports

Vaccines are desperately needed in the developing world. Even when they’re available and inexpensive, there’s still a major problem: most vaccines need to be refrigerated. Reaching the relevant populations often means traveling to areas where electricity and refrigeration are spotty at best. Nearly half of the vaccine doses around the world are lost to the heat. Also, the cost of refrigeration contributes to about 80 percent of the cost of the vaccines.

So silk experts at Tufts University have come up with a potential solution: encase the vaccines in silk protein.

Silk proteins contain nanoscale pockets that can hold and protect biological compounds. Inside the silk protein wrap, the compounds stay biologically stable. In the lab, they were able to stabilize the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for more than 6 months at a variety of tropical temperatures.

The technology also worked with antibiotics. Stored at a month at temperatures reaching 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the antibiotics kept their potency.  The research is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Jeney Zhang et al.,"Stabilization of vaccines and antibiotics in silk and eliminating the cold chain"]

If the lab results hold up out in the world, the silk safeguard could save billions of dollars, and millions of lives.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]


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