Revolutionizing Vaccination: Ultrasound Technology May Eliminate Needles and Pain


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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, the reluctance or fear towards needles is a barrier to widespread vaccination. To address this problem, researchers are working to develop vaccination methods that do not require needles. An inventive idea has been presented by a doctoral student at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oxford. This proposal suggests using ultrasound as a means to deliver vaccines without the use of needles. The method involves using sound waves to transmit the vaccine through the skin in a controlled manner using pulses.

The inventor of this device explains, “Our technique relies on ‘cavitation,’ an acoustic effect involving the formation and bursting of bubbles in response to sound waves.” The process comprises three steps: initially, it clears away the outer layers of dead skin cells; the second step involves a pump mechanism to drive the vaccine into the passageways created in the first phase.

The final step focuses on opening up the membranes, ensuring the success of the previous stages. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a quarter of adults and two-thirds of children harbor significant fears related to needles. However, public health heavily relies on vaccine uptake, often administered via injections.

Darcy Dunn-Lawless, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, is investigating the possibility of administering vaccines without the use of needles or pain thru the application of ultrasound technology. He will discuss the latest developments in this innovative approach at Acoustics 2023 Sydney, whcih takes place from December 4-8 at the International Convention Center Sydney. Dunn-Lawless’s presentation is set for December 4 at 11:00 a.m. Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

Dunn-Lawless described how our approach utilizes the process of ‘cavitation,’ which entails the creation and bursting of bubbles caused by sound waves. Our goal is to employ these bursts of mechanical energy in threee main ways: firstly, to establish routes for vaccine molecules to traverse through the outer layer of dead skin cells; secondly, to act as a pump that propels drug molecules into these routes; and finally, to facilitate the opening of cell membranes, which is essential for certain vaccines to effectively enter cells.

In the first tests conducted inside a living organism, it was observed that the cavitation method delivered significently fewer vaccine moleclues, 700 times less, compared to traditional injections. Interestingly, the cavitation technique resulted in a more powerful immune response. Scientists theorize that this may be due to the fact that the ultrasonic delivery specifically targets the skin, which is rich in immune cells, as opposed to injections which reach the muscles. As a result, this approach offers the potential for a more effective vaccine, with the possibilty of reducing expenses and improving effectiveness while minimizing the likelihood of adverse reactions.

Dunn-Lawless emphasized that the main possible adverse outcome, in their opinion, relates to the use of physical methods in healthcare: applying too much energy to the body, which can result in harm to tissues. Overexposure to cavitation can mechanically injure cells and structures. Nonetheless, research indicates that such harm can be reduced by controlling the level of exposure. Therefore, a key aspect of their study is determining the safety limit for administering vaccines.

Dunn-Lawless collaborates with a team led by Dr. Mike Gray, Professor Bob Carlisle, and Professor Constantin Coussios within Oxford’s Biomedical Ultrasonics, Biotherapy, and Biopharmaceuticals Laboratory (BUBBL). Their cavitation approach holds promise, particularly for DNA vaccines that currently face delivery challenges. By assisting in opening cell membranes blocking therapeutic access to the cell nucleus, cavitation can amplify the advantages of DNA vaccines, such as focused immune responses, low infection risks, and extended shelf life.

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