How Are These Vaccines Like Ramen Noodles?

Answer: You can bring them to life with just some water and heat... and that may have major ramifications for remote healthcare.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Vaccines have had an enormous impact on human health worldwide, but they’re not shelf stable — they need to be refrigerated from the time they’re made to the time they’re used. Transporting them overseas and on trucks to remote villages is a huge challenge that means that some parts of the world just don’t have access at all.

But what if you could mix together everything you need to manufacture a vaccine in a tube to make it in your own back pocket?

That’s the goal for Keith Pardee, assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Toronto. He wants to extend the reach of healthcare, and that starts with making healthcare tools available without the clinical labs that are only accessible in urban centres.

“The big idea in our lab is that we can run gene circuits outside of cells,” explains Pardee. “We do that by basically making a soup out of bacteria. So there’s no cells, it’s just all the machinery that makes a cell work, and we use that machinery to run gene circuits in a test tube.”

Taking the machinery out of the cells means that it’s easier to transport and simple to use anywhere.

“With our system, we’ve freeze-dried the ability to make that vaccine, and you ship it just like you can do with ramen noodles or soup,” adds Pardee. “You just add water at the end, and you put the DNA that codes for the vaccine protein in and warm it up to your body temperature. And in a few hours you’ll have the vaccine.”

This on-demand approach means that these shelf-stable kits could be ready to respond to an outbreak, generating hundreds of thousands of doses of vaccines or other protein-based drugs in a short period of time. These tools would normally be restricted to hospitals or other specialized centres, but with only water and the warmth of body temperature needed to sustain the reaction, a back pocket becomes a laboratory.

Pardee is also creating rapid diagnostic tools that can easily be applied to any disease-causing micro-organism by using its genes as a barcode. His work recently helped diagnose the Zika virus using a paper-based test.

The sensing molecules are freeze-dried onto a piece of paper the size of a stamp, and a user applies a small saliva, urine, or blood sample. In about an hour, the test paper changes colour to purple if Zika is present. Each test costs about a dollar to make and doesn’t require any specialized equipment or training to read.

“As the world’s population is growing, we have billions of people who need healthcare, but many of them live on under three dollars a day,” says Pardee. “So what we use this for is to extend the reach of healthcare to populations that don’t have access currently.”

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Keith Pardee is the Canada Research Chair in Synthetic Biology in Human Health and is an assistant professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Alberta, a Master of Science degree in Natural Products Chemistry from the University of British Columbia, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto.

Following the completion of his doctoral studies, Pardee completed a postdoctoral fellowship under the supervision of Professor Jim Collins (Harvard/MIT) and was a research scientist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, his work combined in vitro synthetic biology and biochemical systems with materials science to build paper-based synthetic gene networks. This included the creation a method to embed freeze-dried synthetic gene networks and their complementary cellular machinery into paper. These systems remain stable without refrigeration for more than a year and are activated by adding water. The result was a new venue for synthetic biologists to operate in and a much-needed path for the safe deployment of engineered gene circuits beyond the lab.

At the University of Toronto, Pardee continues to focus on moving synthetic biology outside of the cell.  His research program combines biochemistry, molecular engineering and electronics to create a new class of sterile and abiotic tools for applications both in and outside the lab. By generating in vitro synthetic biology programs and creating in vitro environments to host these biomolecular programs, he is producing small, programmable sensors and devices for research, portable diagnostics and tools for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.

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