Collaborative ¡MIRA! team, including student researchers, working on nanotechnology to streamline vaccine delivery

Jennifer Martinez, Madi King, Christine Pedersen and Matt Rush

An interdisciplinary research team at Northern Arizona University is working with partners throughout the country to revamp how vaccinations are delivered—a timely project that, once successful, could be applied to the coming COVID-19 vaccine and inoculations against new organisms that humanity may face in the future.

Jennifer Martinez, a professor in the Department of Applied Physics and Materials Science and director of the Center for Materials Interfaces in Research and Applications (¡MIRA!), came to NAU two years ago from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. She brought with her a piece of a project, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, aimed at creating a vaccine delivery method that requires only one injection instead of multiple shots over a period of several weeks.

The goal leading the project is to make sure soldiers in the field are protected, Martinez said. Consider the Hepatitis B vaccine, which is similar to many other organisms in that, to provide lasting immunity, a person needs multiple inoculations over the course of many months. A soldier going into the field can’t be recalled after a few weeks or months for second and third shots. Ideally, the soldier would get a single shot.

This project, then, has two parts: creating a single mosaic vaccine that contains each of the individual pieces of an organism to which the body needs to build immunity; and building a container for that vaccine that contains all the needed vaccine but releases it into the body over a safe period of time. Easy, right?

“You need to have a vaccine that works the first time and one time only, and that is not easy,” Martinez said. “Mosaics have many overlapping tiny pieces of organisms so hopefully you’ll find the right piece(s) that the body will respond to and make antibodies to it.”

While her colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory work on a new vaccine, Martinez and her team at NAU and Los Alamos are working on building the box. The first step to that is creating the right nanomaterials. Postdoctoral scholar Matt Rush, graduate student Christine Pedersen and undergraduates Madi King and Ashley Martinez, in collaboration with partners at LANL and the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, are using nanomaterials to build the case for that vaccine. The case needs to hold all the vaccine materials and degrade over a certain amount of time so additional vaccine materials are released into the muscles in an appropriate timeline.

“The cool part about it is that we’re just developing this framework for how to deliver any vaccine over a long period of time in your body,” she said. “It’s effectively a shopping bag that fully encapsulates everything so nothing can get out until we time it to get out.”

Her team is using commercial polymers that are safe with the human body and some genetically encoded polymers and researching the right conditions to make carriers of the right size. From there, they have to “teach” the polymers how to form a carrier of the right size. This work isn’t new; materials scientists have made carriers for medications. But it’s never been done quite like this for a vaccine.

Postdoc Rush, who came to NAU after getting his Ph.D. in nanoscience and microsystems engineering, roles in this work include working with students to optimize nanoparticles for controlled degradation and release and looking at adjuvants (chemical compounds that jump-start the immune response) that can be used in conjunction with the vaccine particles to increase protection. This work focuses on targeting nanoparticles to the correct cells in the muscles to lead to increased immune response through testing how cells respond after being exposed to the vaccine particles. This work may lead to a vaccine compound that not only is delivered more effectively but can reach the same level of effectiveness with less of the viral DNA. It should also reduce the number of negative side effects such as injection site pain, fever or rash.

“If we are able to develop a better vaccine delivery system, we anticipate being able to use this platform to treat other diseases,” Rush said. “While not all viruses, as an example, will respond the same, we hope to be able to modify parts of our system to create a vaccine in these other cases, such as increasing or decreasing the particle degradation time in order to allow for the immune system to develop immunity.”

While this project is coming at a precipitous time, as the world rolls out COVID-19 vaccines, Martinez said this new system won’t work the same for every vaccine. Certain organisms, like flu and HIV, mutate quickly, so a single vaccine won’t mean a lifetime of immunity. But it’s a step in advancing the study of vaccinations against such viruses that can be beneficial even for those changing organisms.

Between the re-engineered vaccine and the creation of the nanomaterials box, it’s an interdisciplinary scientist’s dream project. That crossover between chemistry, engineering, materials science and physics is one reason Rush wanted to participate in this research.

“In getting my degree and doing this work you might say I am an engineer, a chemist, a biologist and a physicist, because all of these fields come tougher at the nanoscale that we are working at,” Rush said. “But an important takeaway about interdisciplinary research is that someone in any one of these fields can contribute and collaborate with others in order to do this type of research.”

In addition to the NAU contributors of Madi King, Matt Montoya Rush, Ashley Martinez and Christine Pedersen, the team includes Lisa Phipps, Jessica Kubicek-Sutherland, Zach Stromberg, Peter Hraber and Will Fischer of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Steven Bradfute of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. The team has an article in the March International Journal of Pharmaceutics discussing the new nanocarriers.

¡MIRA! is a materials research and diversity center that aims to provide opportunities to all young scientists to enter materials science, in particular historically minoritized people. ¡MIRA! is built on interdisciplinary work like this project—research that embraces diversity of thought and experience and diversity among its researchers.

“We believe that the diverse populations within ¡MIRA! will help us solve problems in a different way because we bring in people who think in different ways,” she said. “I have great enthusiasm for what ¡MIRA! can do in the sciences and in creating diversity in our education system.”Learn more about ¡MIRA!’s revolutionary goals in research and inclusivity.

Photos: Jennifer Martinez, Madi King, Christine Pedersen and Matt Rush. Not pictured: Ashley Martinez

Northern Arizona University LogoHeidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 | heidi.toth@nau.edu