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Tattoos: Vaccinations of the Future?

February 7, 2008

German scientists are exploring the option of delivering a new generation of experimental DNA vaccines more effectively by using tattoos rather than standard injections into muscle.

The scientists used lab mice to deliver fragments of DNA in order to stimulate an immune response. This was seen as a promising way of making better vaccines for everything from flu to cancer, according to Reuters. Until now, however, the concept has been hampered by its low efficiency.

“Delivery of DNA via tattooing could be a way for a more widespread commercial application of DNA vaccines,” said Martin Mueller of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

The research was published in the online open access journal Genetic Vaccines and Therapy.

Although no ink was used, Mueller and his colleagues tested tattooing by vaccinating mice with a protein fragment of human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

They found three doses of DNA vaccine given by tattooing produced at least 16 times higher antibody levels than three intramuscular injections, Reuters said.

The level of antibodies indicates the strength of the immune system’s response.

Currently, there are no approved DNA vaccines on the market, but several drug companies are currently exploring their options through clinical trials and investments in new technology.

For instance, Pfizer Inc, the world’s biggest drugmaker, bought British pioneer PowderMed in October 2006 with intentions of exploring DNA vaccines.

The stronger response produced by the use of a vibrating needle shows that the method is more efficient than a normal injection, although it is also more painful.

“This is probably what makes it work better than normal injections because the tissue is damaged and this affects the immune cells, which then look out for antigens,” Mueller said in a telephone interview.

Tattoos have played a part in human culture for thousands of years.

Just over 100 years ago, the practice became more widely available with the invention of the electric tattoo machine in the United States. The same basic instrument is still in use to create tattoos today, according to BBC News.

Tattoo vaccines are unlikely to be for everyone. But they could be valuable for delivering certain therapeutic vaccines to fight cancer or other serious conditions, where some pain is acceptable, Mueller said.

Therapeutic, as opposed to prophylactic, vaccines are being developed to treat disease, rather than just prevent it.

Mueller said tattooing could also have a role to play in routine vaccination of cattle.

On the Net:

German Cancer Research Center

Genetic Vaccines and Therapy




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