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Vaccine “bottleneck” could be improved with new Purdue technology

Researcher Ahmad Darwish prepares a microwave experiment (Photo courtesy of Purdue University)
Researcher Ahmad Darwish prepares a microwave experiment (Photo courtesy of Purdue University)

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored one major problem with vaccine transportation: how to store the shots.

The majority of vaccines have to be kept cold all the way up until injection into a patient’s arm.

Now, researchers at Purdue University are exploring a new way of freeze-drying vaccines they say is both cheaper and faster than currently available options.

Freeze-dried vaccines have been around for over 50 years, and were essential to the World Health Organization's global effort to eradicate smallpox.

But at Purdue, researchers say they will use microwaves to make freeze-drying more viable for large-scale production.

Alina Alexeenko is a Purdue researcher on the project. She said vaccines can already be freeze-dried, but in its current forms, the process is either significantly slower or hugely expensive.

“So what we are doing is resolving this bottleneck,” said Alexeenko. “We are focused on increasing capacity.”

Alexeenko said the technology could vastly improve vaccine access – particularly in places that aren’t able to provide cold storage.

Freeze-dried vaccines don’t need to be refrigerated, and can be “activated” by adding a liquid solution once they are ready to be used.

Research associate Ahmad Darwish said that the microwave method for freeze-drying vaccines has struggled with heating uniformity.

“In our system, we actually have achieved significantly improved uniformity as well as heating efficiency,” he said.

Purdue researchers said they are currently working towards bringing their technology to the marketplace.