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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Abu Dhabi student developing heat-proof vaccine to help tackle disease across the globe

NYUAD student's research would protect vaccines being transported in high temperatures

Marieh Bassam Al Handawi is developing a heat-resistant vaccine to aid people in need all over the world. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Marieh Bassam Al Handawi is developing a heat-resistant vaccine to aid people in need all over the world. Chris Whiteoak / The National

An Abu Dhabi student is aiming to tackle diseases across the globe - by developing a cost-effective vaccine which can be transported to remote areas without being damaged by the searing heat.

In the hot summer months, vaccines are often destroyed by the time they reach their recipients in far-flung areas.

High temperatures can cause vaccines to lose their ability to provide protection against diseases - rendering them ineffective in parts of the world where they are desperately needed.

Now Marieh Bassam Al Handawi, a Syrian global PhD chemistry student at NYU Abu Dhabi, is developing a cheaper vaccine that can be successfully transported to all corners of the globe without any of its efficacy being lost along the way.

Ms Al Handawi was inspired by nature to use a common chemical to protect the vaccines. She embeds the vaccine with calcium carbonate, which has proven to stabilise the vaccine even in extremely hot conditions. Calcium carbonate is used as a supplement for calcium deficiency and is very cheap.

“What makes our research unique is the fact that we are using inorganic crystals that are very cheap. They are very safe for human consumption and are given to people as a supplement for calcium deficiency,” said Ms Al Handawi.

The researcher was inspired by the way nature uses calcium carbonate to protect its self. For example, seashells are made of calcium carbonate.

“We take these bioparticles and embed them inside calcium carbonate crystals. We surround the bioparticles with an armour so that it's protected from the harsh environment,” said Ms Al Handawi.

She is calling for sponsors, such as pharmaceutical companies and government bodies, to come forward and provide the support and funding to take her research to the next stage.

UNICEF explains that the system used for keeping and distributing vaccines in potent conditions is called the 'cold chain'.

Vaccines are sent directly from the supplier to the country of intended use as refrigerated cargo. The vaccines are then moved to freezer rooms and from there, distributed by a refrigerated vehicle. Cold boxes and vaccine carriers are used to distribute the vaccine. People then transport the vaccines via car, camel, motorcycle, bicycle, donkey, camel or on foot to remote areas.

Ma Al Handawi believes she can shorten this chain - and offer a more cost-effective alternative.

“If my research is proven to be successful, we could eliminate some part of the cold chain. The cold chain is a very expensive process and requires a lot of delicate care. I believe that we can save money and energy through this and it will help to get vaccines to people in remote areas,” said Ms Al Handawi.

“We need people to fund us so we can continue the research," said Ms Al Handawi.

Pance Naumov, associate professor of chemistry At NYU Abu Dhabi and mentor to Ms Al Handawi said it is often in the interest of pharmaceutical companies to keep prices of vaccines high.

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“Pharmaceutical companies like to make a profit and they don’t always go with the cheapest solution. We call it Pharma mafia in our jargon. They make a product that can only be used in certain conditions,” said, Mr Naumov.

“We want to make a very simple cheap method to transport the medicines to the population who can’t afford to pay high prices to the pharmaceutical companies,” he added.

“Our achievement is that we have been able to demonstrate that calcium carbonate can stabilise big molecules. We need to incorporate big molecules that will cover many different diseases. In order for us to continue this research, we will need sponsorship either from the government or funding agencies. This will help continue the research. We hope we can get funding and take it to the next level," said Mr Naumov.

“UAE and other countries in the region have a strong incentive to sponsor this project, especially because we live in an arid environment. A large part of the population here lives outside of the big cities. Once the principle is demonstrated it can be taken forward and we can tackle different diseases particular to this part of the world," said Ms Naumov.

One such vaccine used in UAE is the polio vaccine (OPV) which is vulnerable to high temperatures and requires the cold chain to store it at very low temperatures during transportation and storage.