Scientists are working on making vaccination tracking more simple, and in the long term, if their research into a system of marking under the skin proves to be reliable, it will mean that vaccination cards and records are no longer required. The futuristic-sounding procedure throws up a variety of issues, however.
Pixabay / qimono
Engineers at MIT have invented nanoparticles that can be injected under the skin and which emit a fluorescent light that is invisible to the naked eye but visible via a smartphone, and which could in time be used to confirm that a person has actually been vaccinated. The concept involves marking the body with a proof of vaccination in developing countries where written vaccination cards are often erroneous or incomplete, and electronic medical files do not exist.
The system, which was outlined on Wednesday 18 December in the journal Science Translational Medicine, has to date only been tested on rats. Researchers financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are hoping to test it on humans in Africa in the next two years, said Ana Jaklenec, a biomedical engineer at MIT and co-author of the study.
"Quantum dots" under the skin
The engineers have spent a great deal of time finding components that are both safe for the body, stable and capable of lasting for a number of years. The final composition is made up of copper-based nano-crystals called quantum dots, which are 3.7 nanometres in diameter, and encapsulated in microparticles 16 microns in diameter (1 micron is equal to a millionth of a metre, and 1 nanometre is equal to a billionth). The composition is injected via a micro-needle patch that is 1.5 millimetres in length.
Once they have been applied to the skin for two minutes, the micro-needles dissolve and leave little dots under the skin, in the shape of a circle or a cross. These dots emit light that is invisible to humans but part of the infra-red spectrum.
Greatly simplified verification tool
An adapted smartphone that is pointed at the skin shows up the circle or the cross on the screen. Researchers would like to be able to inject the measles vaccine at the same time as the dots. Years later, a doctor would be able to check via smartphone whether the person had actually been vaccinated.
The process is designed to be more durable than marking by indelible ink, with researchers having simulated five years of exposure to the sun, and requires less technology than an iris scan or maintaining medical databases. The downside to the concept is that the technique will only be useful in identifying children who have not been vaccinated if it is the sole system used.
Furthermore, will people accept having multiple markings under the skin for each vaccination, and what will happen to the dots when children’s bodies grow? The Gates Foundation is nevertheless pursuing the project and financing opinion surveys in Kenya, Malawi and Bangladesh to determine whether people there would be prepared to have these microscopic quantum dots, or would prefer to stick with the old-fashioned vaccination cards.
Cover image : Pixabay / whitesession
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