Pentagon, NIH fund pollen-based vaccine delivery research

Neung Stocker Photography/

Research could one day allow troops in the field to vaccinate themselves against biological warfare threats.

The U.S. government in recent months has committed nearly $2 million for research that could one day allow troops in the field to vaccinate themselves against biological warfare threats.

At the core of the Texas Tech University work on improved vaccine delivery is pollen -- the allergy-provoking powder released by flowering plants.

A television commercial provided the spark for the project’s inception three years ago, said lead researcher Harvinder Gill, a chemical engineer who specializes in vaccine and drug delivery at the Lubbock institution.

“I was basically passing by the television and I saw these nicely shaped particles on the TV screen,” he told Global Security Newswire on Friday. “I didn’t know what it was. I just stopped and realized it’s actually an advertisement for an anti-allergy drug to treat pollen allergies.”

Manufacturing synthetic versions of such particles is difficult. Even though the pollens depicted in the commercial “were causing allergies, I wondered if I could use them for a different application, which is to deliver drugs and vaccines into the human body,” Gill said.

Since then, Gill and his colleagues have determined that the allergens within pollen particles can be chemically removed and replaced with a test vaccine. The particles have a hardened shell that would allow the treatment to survive the trip through the stomach and into the intestines to provide protection against infection, Gill said.

The researcher said he believes vaccine-carrying pollens could be delivered via pills or liquids. An oral delivery system offers a number of potential benefits over injections, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Rather than requiring shots administered by medical professionals, pills could simply be easily swallowed without pain or hassle even in far-off deployment spots. The drugs could also be more easily shipped to troops in the field than liquid vaccines, the agency said in a Nov. 27press release announcing Gill as a recipient of a DARPA Young Faculty Award.

“Soldiers could really carry them with them or it could be para-dropped in different locations,” Gill said. “Those are just advantages … the armed forces could envision getting.”

The benefits might also extend to the civilian population, he added. “It is child-friendly, patient-friendly.  A lot of disadvantages of vaccinations go away suddenly,” Gill said.

The Defense Department office provided Gill’s team with $300,000. In September, the researchers received $1.5 million over five years from the National Institutes of Health to continue the project.

The Pentagon office said an orally delivered vaccine could be used against any number of diseases but did not offer specifics. The agency did not respond to requests for further information on its funding of Gill’s work.

“By using different combinations of pollens we might be in a position to deliver most vaccines,” according to Gill.

Unlike a vaccine administered by injection, a treatment that is ingested could increase mucous membrane immunity in the lungs and intestines, preventing infection from starting in those key bodily systems and then spreading. The test vaccine carried by pollen particles showed “fantastic” results in producing disease-fighting antibodies in test mice, Gill said.

Texas Tech has submitted an application for one patent related to the research and intends to seek another, according to a university press release.

Gill acknowledged that it would require years of research and testing before the work leads to a product that might be available to the military or civilians.

“We want to understand how it’s working,” he said. “We basically tried it and it worked. We need to now understand how the immune response is working.”

(Image via Neung Stocker Photography/