Mimicking nature, Australian scientists have developed a protective seashell-inspired capsule to preserve the active biological ingredients needed to create promising new drugs.

[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]

How seashells have helped deliver drugs and vaccines

Additional Resources

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the development overcomes a critical challenge in biomedicine by ensuring important proteins remain effective in hostile environments.

The new shell developed by CSIRO, The University of Adelaide and the Australian Synchrotron, could hold the key to cost-effectively preserving and extending the shelf-life of vaccines in extreme temperatures without refrigeration.

This could significantly benefit healthcare in developing countries where life-saving vaccines often need to be transported over long distances to reach everyone who needs them.

“Like a house is made of bricks, living organisms are made up of proteins which play a critical role in the body,” CSIRO lead researcher Dr Kang Liang said.

“But unlike bricks, proteins are fragile and their function alters or perishes when exposed to heat, pressure and pollutants.

“Inspired by a sea urchin’s outer shell, which supports and protects its fragile body, we’ve come up with a porous shell that grows around important proteins such as enzymes to protect them on the inside.

“Our shell offers a low-cost solution to protecting proteins for making and enhancing drugs and other products where sensitivity has long been an issue.”

The shell is made of an extremely porous material called metal organic frameworks (MOFs) that has a flexible and customisable cage-like structure.

“The shell’s tiny cage holes are similar to a sea creature’s pores and are designed to capture, trap or release specific biomolecules,” Dr Liang said.

It also paves the way to making new and improved consumer products. For example, shell-encapsulated enzymes in laundry washing powder would perform better, resulting in cleaner, softer and more fragrant clothing in less time.

CSIRO research team leader, Dr Paolo Falcaro said they are now seeking industry partners to develop the technology for specific applications including pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, chemical and food processing, water decontamination and screening for genetic disease.

“We are currently investigating important biomolecules including DNA, antibodies and those used in vaccines,” Dr Falcaro said.

“Based on our laboratory trials, the shell could protect a vaccine vial for only a few dollars and at a commercial scale we would work to make it even cheaper. This cost is insignificant when a vaccine can cost up to hundreds of dollars per dose.” 

CSIRO is developing a range of technologies for making and using MOFs that span capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, separating and storing gases, and decontaminating water and soils. These technologies offer industry significant productivity and environmental benefits.

Later this year, Dr Liang will join fellow CSIRO colleague Dr Paul Berkman and 11 other young Australians who were selected to attend the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting – the Oscars equivalent of the science world.

Companies interested in developing the shell technology should contact enquiries@csiro.au. The full paper can be accessed at Nature Communications .

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  • Dr Kang Liang standing in a beach.

    Dr Kang Liang, CSIRO materials scientist.

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  • Hand holding four small seashells.

    Seashells have inspired a molecular-sized protective shell for biomolecules.

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  • Dr Kang Liang holding an assortment of small seashells in one hand and a large seashell in the other.

    CSIRO’s Dr Kang Liang has developed a protective shell that could improve drug and vaccine delivery.

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  • Seashells of various size and shape sitting on sand.

    Seashells provide protection to fragile creatures in a process called biomineralisation.

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  • Graphic depicting an example if metal organic frameworks (MOFs).

    The metal organic frameworks (MOFs) provide a porous protective shell around the protein.

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Paolo Falcaro

Research Team Leader

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