Sightlines

Innovations: How to Save 3 Billion Lives — By Just Adding Water

Thanks to BYU researchers, now a small, freeze-dried "kit" can produce vaccines in the world's poorest countries.

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Brady Bundy (chemical engineering) Just add water therapeutics

November 17, 2015

Photography by: Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo

Copyright BYU Photo 2015
All Rights Reserved
photo@byu.edu (801)422-7322

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1511-30 045 Brady Bundy (chemical engineering) Just add water therapeutics November 17, 2015 Photography by: Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo Copyright BYU Photo 2015 All Rights Reserved photo@byu.edu (801)422-7322 7941

Around the world, some 3 million people die annually from diseases that vaccines could have prevented. The vast majority of those deaths occur in developing countries, which often lack the tools and technology required to properly make, store, or preserve the necessary immunizations.

In general, vaccine manufacturing requires very precise environmental conditions and expensive equipment. Currently, such creation en masse primarily happens in the United States and Western Europe, which ship the substances globally. It’s then up to the recipient country to keep the vaccines dry and cool, usually around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now researchers at Utah’s Brigham Young University (BYU) have devised a portable method of vaccine production that upends the traditional process, jettisoning the need for expensive, time-intensive, and power-draining production, not to mention advanced storage facilities.

The team designed a mobile vaccine kit (basically a small 1-to-3-liter-sized package) that behaves like a mechanical device but is, in fact, a biological one.

Here’s how it works: A kit’s contents actually manufacture a particular antigen—what stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies—once a user simply adds water. This action kicks off a process that results in a fresh vaccine that health workers could administer the very same day.

The key? The packages can be freeze-dried by a distributor. Thus, once kits are shipped abroad, they can be stored at temperatures up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit—reducing the energy needed for refrigeration—for up to one year. Recognizing that many countries most in need of vaccines are hotter than this, in the future the researchers plan to create kits that will be viable at higher temperatures.

BYU’s development could be a game-changer. When a virus hits, for instance, a vaccine could be on hand, ready for immediate use; the time that this could save medical personnel might make the difference between life and death for patients. Not only that, but a health worker can reuse a kit. Even after water has been added, laboratory freeze-drying equipment can dehydrate the device (though this approach could be cost-prohibitive for some facilities).

So far, the BYU researchers have only successfully used the kit to produce a certain anti-cancer protein. But in the near future, getting a vaccine might be as easy as making a Cup of Noodles.

Pedal to the Metal

After last year’s landmark climate deal, people are optimistic that the world might finally be turning a corner with clean, renewable energy. Yet solar power, wind, and biofuels can’t quite meet today’s high energy demands for many human activities, such as transportation. In 2014, global oil consumption increased about 0.8 percent; natural gas and coal each shot up around 0.4 percent. But one potential solution, according to scientists at Montreal’s McGill University, has been within reach all along: metals.

The team’s research demonstrates that some fine-grain metal particles—such as iron and aluminum, which produce flames with power densities similar to those of fossil fuels when burned—could power an external combustion engine (long ago used in steam cars). Giving fossil fuel-based internal combustion engines a run for their money, a metal-powered motor could one day move anything from small cars to big planes (not to mention, they wouldn’t cough tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide, dust, or soot into the atmosphere).

To boot, the fuel’s byproduct is recyclable: It can be used time and time again in other applications, cutting down on waste. Though metal power is still a ways down the road, it could mean a future where you just dump iron in your car, hit the ignition, and speed off, guilt-free.

Data Drums

What if the way to make your computer work faster were to actually sing to it? Turns out, researchers at the British universities of Sheffield and Leeds have developed a new form of transferring data and storing them as memory—using sound waves. Not only is the result 100,000 times faster, but its power efficiency would be an improvement by a factor of about three to four.

Hard drives are almost always the slowest part of a system, limiting a computer’s total performance. That’s because typically data are pushed through electrical or magnetic currents, using tons of power and producing a lot of heat. The new process, outlined in a recent study published in Applied Physics Letters, produces acoustic waves in a small part of the system; the waves then push data through nanowires, essentially acting like an information speedway. Different pitches, all inaudible to the human ear, are used to manage direction. Listen: Your future PC or MacBook could be humming data on its way.

My Chemical Costume

Although banned by international law, chemical warfare still continues to ravage populations. Just take, for example, reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have deployed sarin gas on civilians.

Given this grim reality, an international consortium of scientists led by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a new kind of protective equipment that can block the effects of chemical weapons. Last September, they revealed a new hydrogel coating that successfully neutralizes human exposure to mustard gas and nerve agent VX, halting the chemicals’ respective symptoms: nausea and loss of muscle control, and internal chemical burns and organ failure.

Previous attempts to develop substances that block the damage of chemical weapons have always become impotent when they were translated into practical applications. The new material, though, can be used preventively on clothing, paints, and metals, and it can completely break down the chemical agents in between 10 and 30 minutes.

 

Neel V. Patel is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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