Seashells to protect drugs and vaccines

Mimicking nature, we have developed a protective seashell-inspired capsule to preserve important, but fragile biomolecules needed to develop new drugs, vaccines and consumer products.

The Challenge

Preserving fragile biomolecules

Our materials scientist, Dr Kang Liang, was inspired by the natural biomineralisation process of seashells.

Biomolecules, such as proteins and enzymes, are the building blocks of living organisms and hold a lot of promise in biotechnology.

Yet, because biomolecules are extremely fragile and their properties degrade when exposed to hostile environments, such as heat, pollution, pressure and bacteria, their effective use has been a big challenge to date.

For example, the active ingredients in vaccines must be kept within a cool temperature range, and therefore refrigerated, to ensure they remain effective.

This has made vaccine delivery problematic and expensive, particularly in developing countries, where vaccines often need to be transported over long distances, through extreme temperature to reach rural communities.

Our Response

Mimicking seashell-protection for proteins and enzymes

Sea urchins and mollusks develop hard shells to protect their soft tissue in a process called 'biomineralisation'.

Our scientists, in collaboration with The University of Adelaide and the Australian Synchrotron, drew inspiration from this process to develop a hard molecular shell that grows around important biomolecules to protect them inside. This could enable them to be used effectively in a wide range of different products and processes in healthcare, manufacturing and chemical, food and water processing.

The team used an extremely porous material called metal organic frameworks (or MOFs) to create the shell, which grows around the molecules in a chemical reaction. The shell has a cage-like structure to protect the biomolecule while also allowing them to be released under certain conditions.

For example, they found that the biomolecules could be exposed to twice as much heat before degrading using this technology.

This could be used in vaccines so that they remain intact without the need for refrigeration, it could also pave the way to new drugs where biomolecules could be delivered more effectively to the body, and it could also improve the effectiveness of enzymes used in chemical products, such as laundry washing powder.

Dr Liang talks about how seashells have helped biotech

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: Seashells to protect active ingredients in drugs and vaccines]

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang, CSIRO materials scientist]

Dr Kang Liang: In CSIRO we are collaborating with the University of Adelaide and the Australian Synchrotron, and together we have been addressing one of the major challenges in biotechnology, the perfection of biomolecules.

[Image changes to show two ladies seated together and talking and laughing]

The biomolecules are very important in our everyday life

[Image has changed back to Dr Liang]

ranging from chemical processing to the delivery of vaccines, but the issue is that such molecules are very fragile, they only function within very specific conditions. We are inspired by nature and, for example, a sea urchin.

[Image changes to show Dr Liang holding a sea urchin]

So a sea urchin, it’s a kind of soft tissue, they form a very hard shell to protect themselves.

[Image changes to show an animation of a sea urchin, and then shows the sea urchin growing spikey shells]

So we were basically inspired by this to make the coatings for biomolecules.

[Image changes to show the sea urchin and then changes to show Dr Liang and a colleague looking at information on a computer screen and then moves back to show Dr Liang standing and talking to the camera]

So we basically used a new type of material to coat the proteins. This material is called Metal Organic Frameworks or MOFs.

[Image changes to show an animation of the biomolecules forming a shell around them]  

[Image changes to show Dr Paolo Falcaro, CSIRO research team leader]

Dr Paolo Falcaro: The properties of protection that we have are superior to any other technology available at the moment.

[Image changes to show an animation of a flame to the molecules to demonstrate heat. All the regular molecules degrade and fall away while the shell covered molecule remains intact]

We can double the temperature that normally deactivates an enzyme.

[Image changes to show Dr Falcaro and Dr Liang working with a 3D model and then shows Dr Liang looking at liquids in small containers]

I think the benefit for the global health care would be huge.

[Image changes to show Dr Falcaro drawing images on a whiteboard]

We could protect with vaccines and we can deliver vaccines, we can store important biomolecules in a way that can be done for the first time without requiring refrigeration, without caring about contaminations or the presence of bacteria’s.

[Image changes back to Dr Falcaro]

We hope to work with Australian manufacturing to produce new or improved products with our technology.

[Camera pans over a beach showing water and sand]

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears on the screen with text: Big ideas start here, www.csiro.au]

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The Results

Paving the way to new drugs, vaccines and products

Our MOF shell technology is cost-effective solution for protecting biomolecules for a range of different applications.

Based on our laboratory trials, the shell could protect a vial of solution for a few dollars at most, but there is opportunity to make it even cheaper at a commercial scale.

We're now seeking to partner with industry to develop this technology for specific applications in healthcare, manufacturing and chemical, food and water processing.

The technology paves the way to exciting new and improved products that will improve global healthcare, as well as everyday lives.

How seashells have helped deliver drugs and vaccines

Show transcript

Music plays and CSIRO logo appears on screen with text: Seashells inspire breakthrough in biotechnology]

[Image changes to show an animated sea snail moving over the CSIRO logo]

Narrator: Living creatures like sea snails and sea urchins develop protective shells or exoskeletons to protect and support their soft tissue.

[Image changes to show an animation of a sea urchin, and then shows the sea urchin growing spikey shells]

Inspired by nature, we’ve mimicked this process by developing a ‘shell’ that grows around fragile biomolecules such as proteins and enzymes to protect them inside.

[Image changes to show an animation of the biomolecules forming a shell around them]  

Made of metal organic frameworks or MOFs, the shell is extremely porous and has tiny holes which act as pores.

[Above described animation continues to play as it spins around and shows the cage-like structure]

The shell protects important biological proteins so that they stay effective when exposed to heat.

[Image changes to show an animation of a flame to the molecules to demonstrate heat. All the regular molecules degrade and fall away while the shell covered molecule remains intact]

As well as remain robust against bacteria

[Image changes to show an animation of the shell covered molecule amongst regular molecules travelling in the air, with a Pac man figure appearing which chews through all the regular molecules while the shell covered molecule remains intact failing to penetrate the MOF shell]

And so that their properties do not degrade in other hostile environments

[Image changes to show an animation of a person eating a pill, it moves down her throat to inside the stomach, and demonstrates the shell covered molecules surviving versus the regular molecules]

This development overcomes a critical challenge in biotechnology. It paves the way to creating new, more effective drugs, preserving vaccines and increasing their shelf-life, better screening for genetic tests, developing new and improved consumer products, improving food and chemical processing and new water treatments. 

These are products that will improve the everyday lives and health of people around the globe.

We’re now seeking industry partners to help develop these exciting new technologies and bring them to the world.

 [CSIRO logo appears on the screen with text: www.csiro.au]

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