Happening On Campus

Research From The University Of Nottingham Could ‘Revolutionise’ The Sustainable And Social Impact Of Vaccines

Leacsaidh Macdonald Marlow

On Monday 2nd October, the University of Nottingham shared that some of their researchers, along with the Access to Advanced Health Institue (AAHI) were involved in the identification of new vaccine materials which could make vaccinations significantly more “accessible, sustainable, and ethical”.

The materials in question are synthetic ‘adjuvants’, vaccine additives intended to increase a patient’s immune response upon receiving the vaccine.

Appreciated for its moisturising properties

Typically, vaccines use squalene as an adjuvant material, an oil compound which is usually taken from the liver of sharks.

Squalene is ‘one of the most prominent ingredients in cosmetics’ as well as one of the most common adjuvant materials used in vaccines, being appreciated for its moisturising properties.

A significant number are present on lists of endangered species

However, the sustainable and ethical impacts of deriving this chemical from sharks are incredibly damaging. 2.7 million sharks a year are killed so that their livers can be used, primarily for the cosmetic and medical industries.

According to the United Nations (UN), of the fifty shark species frequently captured and killed for the sole purpose of deriving this liver oil, a significant number are present on lists of endangered species, or species which require increased conservation efforts.

Squalene can also be sourced from non-animal sources, predominantly olives, sugarcane, rice bran and wheat germ, however it is present in concentrations far too low to sustain current usage in cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, and it is far more expensive to source, hence why shark-sourced squalene is far more sought-after.

Many shark fishers will capture these shark species exclusively for their liver, disposing of the rest of the animal, making the practice highly unethical and unsustainable.

Sustainable and ethical

While the majority of squalene used is still sourced from sharks, awareness of its detrimental environmental impact has encouraged an increase in flora-sourced squalene as an alternative in the cosmetic industry, with many EU-based companies phasing out the use of animal-sourced squalene in the 2010s.

In their research, the University of Nottingham intended to find alternatives to squalene which would make the production of vaccines more sustainable and ethical. Researchers were successful in identifying new synthetic materials, sourced from methacrylate polymers which are already commercially available, guaranteeing a reliable supply.

Derek Irvine, Professor of Materials Chemistry at UoN said: “At the moment, there are very few adjuvants approved for commercial use, so the need to find a squalene alternative is of vital importance to ensure greater access to vaccines worldwide.”

Materials were stable for ~6 times longer

Not only are the newly identified alternatives better for the planet, but they are also predicted to provide a longer-lasting immune response within patients receiving the vaccines which contain them, based on testing of the materials on human cells.

The University’s research also showed that the new materials were stable for ~6 times longer than shark-sourced squalene at a temperature of forty degrees celsius.

Professor Irvine conveyed the importance of these findings in “increasing accessibility [to vaccines] in developing areas of the world” where access to cold storage is not as readily available.

Approach […] which increases accesss in less developed countries

The next step is to analyse in more detail the immune response to vaccines containing these synthetic alternatives, and the process of scaling up their production.

It is hoped that developments in this area of vaccine research will allow not only for a more environmentally sustainable approach to vaccine production, but also one which increases access in less developed countries where vaccination rates are significantly lower.

The results of this research have been published in the open-access MDPI journal Polymers, available here.

Leacsaidh Macdonald Marlow

Featured image courtesy of Mufid Majnun via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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