A Patch That Delivers Vaccines, No Needles Necessary

One of ten brilliant innovations from our 2015 Invention Awards
2015 Invention Award Winner Category: Medicine
Inventor: Katarzyna “Kasia” Sawicka
Company: ImmunoMatrix LLC
Invention: ImmunoMatrix
Development cost to date: $100,000–200,000
Maturity: 1/5

Vaccines save lives, but most of them are delivered by needle. That’s a problem for people without access to refrigerated solution, clean syringes, and safe ways to dispose of medical waste. Biomedical engineer Kasia Sawicka invented a painless alternative: a patch, called ImmunoMatrix, that can vaccinate patients without breaking the skin. “This technology can affect how vaccines are delivered, especially during pandemics,” Sawicka says.

The skin doesn’t absorb large molecules easily, which meant Sawicka had to find another way to get vaccines across that barrier. As an undergraduate at Stony Brook University, she worked in a lab that stocked an extremely water-absorbent material called poly-vinylpyrrolidone. She found that this polymer (used in hairspray during the era of beehive hairdos) could pull water out of the skin. When moisture returned, the outer layer of the skin swelled, allowing larger-than-usual molecules to enter.

Over several years, Sawicka perfected a process that involves combining the polymer with vaccine solution, forming it into nanofibers with large surface areas, and weaving those fibers into dense mats. In tests on rats and synthetic human skin, the patches delivered vaccine molecules 250 times larger than those the skin typically absorbs. No prick necessary.

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Popular Science. For more extraordinary innovations and tips on how to be an inventor, click through the rest of our Invention Awards feature.