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Harvard i-lab startup Vaxess using silk to preserve vaccines for developing countries

Harvard Innovation Lab startup Vaxess Technologies is developing a way to use silk to preserve vaccines in a manner that eliminates the need for refrigeration.
Harvard Innovation Lab startup Vaxess Technologies is developing a way to use silk to preserve vaccines in a manner that eliminates the need for refrigeration.Credit: Courtesy Vaxess Technologies

You probably know that diseases like measles, mumps and rubella still afflict people in remote parts of the world, despite being eradicated long ago in developed countries. You might not know that one big reason isn’t a shortage of vaccines but rather a lack of refrigeration. Often, there’s just no way to keep immunizations cold enough, long enough to be effective.

Harvard Innovation Lab startup Vaxess Technologies is developing a way around the cold storage problem by using silk — yes, silk — to preserve vaccines in a manner that eliminates the need for refrigeration.

It’s not quite as easy as the image above suggests. You cannot simply wrap a vial in threads of silk.

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Instead, Vaxess extracts a protein found in silk called fibroin and combines it with a vaccine. Then the company freeze dries the mixture or allows it to air dry in thin sheets that co-founder Patrick Ho likened to Listerine breath strips. In either case, the result is a solidified form of the vaccine that does not require refrigeration, and can later be dissolved in water and injected as normal.

“If we succeed, this changes everything,” said co-founder Michael Schrader. “It eradicates diseases that have plagued humankind since the beginning of existence.”

As a company, Vaxess is a Harvard version of Frankenstein’s monster. Schrader comes from the business school, Ho from the law school, and two other co-founders, Kathryn Kosuda and Livio Valenti, hail from the chemistry department and the Kennedy School of Government, respectively. They were pieced together in the fall of 2011 in a course called Commercializing Science.

The Vaxess founding team also includes two biomedical engineering professors at Tufts, Fiorenzo Omonetto and David Kaplan, who have been experimenting with creative silk applications for more than a decade.

Valenti, a former United Nations worker, helped teach farmers in Cambodia and Laos to grow silk as a means of diversifying their incomes. He became intrigued by the possibility of using the very same material to stabilize vaccines after watching video of a TED talk by Omonetto, and struck up a correspondence with the professor while still abroad.

Once at Harvard, Valenti and his team reconnected with Omonetto and Kaplan, and agreed to partner on a business effort to commercialize the silk-based vaccine preservation strategy.

This fall, Vaxess will move to LabCentral in Cambridge, a co-working space for biotechnology startups that is scheduled to open in November. The company’s plan is to license its technology to vaccine makers like Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi, which could then produce large quantities of non-refrigerated immunizations for sale to aid groups.

“We don’t even have to think too much about a double bottom line,” Valenti said, referring to a business term for helping the world and making money at the same time. “It’s so inherent in what we do.”

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