Vaccines have been critical in the fight against COVID-19. The Commonwealth Fund estimated that as of December 2022, COVID-19 vaccines had prevented more than 3 million deaths and helped to avoid 18 million hospitalizations. Also, the success of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines in fighting COVID-19 wouldn’t have been possible without the use of nanotechnology.
Offering an entirely new approach to vaccine development, vaccine nanotechnology has been key in the battle to defeat COVID-19, and has the potential to address a host of other health challenges, from cancer to malaria. From improving health to offering help to developing nations, the significant contributions that nanotechnology innovations can make to society have garnered a great deal of well-deserved attention.
Current and aspiring engineers who may be considering enrolling in an online Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) degree program can benefit from learning more about how vaccine nanotechnology is opening new avenues in medicine.
What Is Nanotechnology?
In forming an understanding of the use of nanotechnology in vaccine development, it helps to understand some of the fundamentals of nanotechnology itself. According to the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI):
- Scientists who work in nanotechnology conduct their work at the nanoscale, which ranges from 1 to 100 nanometers.
- A nanometer is extremely small: 1 inch contains 25.4 million nanometers.
- Nanotechnology focuses on controlling individual molecules and atoms.
As the NNI explains, nanotechnology enables scientists to adjust the structures of materials in ways that can improve the properties of those materials. For example, applying nanotechnology can make things lighter and stronger, or improve their ability to conduct electricity.
The applications and benefits of nanotechnology are quite broad. According to the NNI, nanotechnology can accomplish things such as:
- Make vehicles lighter to improve energy efficiency
- Speed computer processing times and reduce the size of hardware necessary to store information electronically
- Trigger chemical reactions to eliminate industrial water pollutants
- Improve medical imaging to diagnose diseases earlier
The Use of Nanotechnology in Vaccine Development
A 2021 article in the journal Nano Today described how scientists applied nanotechnology in vaccine development to create the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. As the article explained, nanotechnology enabled scientists to develop lipid nanoparticles that both strengthened the stability of the mRNA vaccines and facilitated their delivery to the target host cell.
As a 2020 report from STAT noted, the lipid nanoparticles in the mRNA vaccines enveloped the mRNA. After the mRNA successfully reached a host cell, that triggered the body to produce a protein that initiated an immune system reaction and instructed the body on how to fight off the virus that causes COVID-19.
Nanotechnology Vaccines vs. Traditional Vaccines
Vaccine nanotechnology represents a significant departure from the traditional method of developing vaccines.
Instead of using mRNA, traditional vaccines use either a living or a dead form of a microbe that causes infection. Traditional vaccines trigger the body’s immune system to respond and protect the body from infection in the future. Examples of vaccines developed using microbes include vaccines for:
- Measles-mumps-rubella (MMR)
Nanotechnology vaccines and traditional vaccines have different advantages. For example, Medical News Today reported the following:
- The development time for mRNA vaccines based on nanotechnology is shorter than for traditional vaccines.
- While the shelf life for mRNA vaccines based on nanotechnology can reach six months, the shelf life for traditional vaccines can be one to three years.
- To maintain immunity, mRNA vaccines based on nanotechnology may require several booster shots, while some traditional vaccines can provide immunity for a lifetime.
Vaccine Nanotechnology: Improvements and New Uses
Scientists are still working to improve vaccines based on nanotechnology.
- In 2022, the Associated Press reported that researchers are working on new COVID-19 vaccines that can address multiple strains of the virus. This could help address issues with “booster fatigue” and reduce confusion about when to get vaccine boosters.
- According to a 2022 report in The Conversation, scientists continue to refine COVID-19 vaccines so that they can offer protection for longer time periods, no longer require refrigeration, and are more effective while using a smaller amount of active ingredients.
Nanotechnology Can Help to Address Health Challenges Beyond COVID-19
New uses for nanotechnology in vaccines are giving hope to people who face a range of health issues. For example, according to a 2022 article in the journal Acta Pharmaceutica Sinica B, researchers are employing nanotechnology to create vaccines that address challenging infectious diseases such as malaria, hepatitis B, tuberculosis and HIV. In addition, scientists are working on cancer vaccines using nanotechnology to fight tumors and melanoma.
Nanotechnology has health and safety uses beyond vaccines as well. For example:
- A 2022 report from AZoNano noted that nanotechnology has uses in areas such as virus detection and testing, antiviral medication, and face mask development.
- According to a 2022 article published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, nanotechnology also has applications in gene therapy, MRI, ultrasound and extended-release drugs.
- Nanotechnology has been instrumental in the development of wearable biosensors to monitor health, according to a 2022 article in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics: X.
Strengthening Health Through Vaccine Nanotechnology
The success of nanotechnology in vaccines for COVID-19 is just one illustration of how nanotechnology has and will continue to benefit society. With applications in not only health but also energy, computing, and the environment, nanotechnology can be a rewarding field of study.
Individuals who are interested in learning more about shaping the future through engineering should explore the University of California, Riverside’s online Master of Science in Engineering degree program and learn how it can help them pursue their professional ambitions. With multiple specializations, from materials at the nanoscale to bioengineering, the program could serve as the launchpad for a fulfilling career. Take the first step toward that career today.