Seeking a more effective way to deliver DNA vaccines, Atlanta researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University turned to a simple household item: an ordinary BBQ lighter. The research team used the lighter to simplify a process called “electroporation,” which could provide a more efficient way to deliver COVID-19 vaccines and other DNA immunizations. The team published their research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Electroporation involves using short electrical pulses to drive vaccine molecules through cell walls. It typically requires expensive, cumbersome lab equipment that must be plugged into an electrical source to work. Inspired by an everyday tool for starting up a propane grill, the researchers repurposed the battery-free, piezoelectric sparking technology within a standard BBQ lighter.

The team also took inspiration from the cosmetics industry. They attached microneedles, typically used to stimulate cellular regeneration to rejuvenate the skin, to the lighter’s sparking mechanism. When sparked, the device transforms the microneedle array into an electrode. The microneedles pierce cell membranes, conducting the vaccine into cells with the force of each electroporation pulse.

Combined, these components make up a tiny electroporation device that can force a vaccine directly into tissue when the microneedles pierce cell membranes. The team nestled the device into a skin patch they refer to as the ePatch. To test the ePatch, researchers used it to administer an experimental DNA COVID-19 vaccine to the skin of mice. Surprisingly, the ePatch created an immune response in the mice that was ten times stronger than an intramuscular or intradermal injection of the vaccine.

Currently, the team is testing the ePatch on mRNA vaccines, although they fully expect the same increase in immune response as with DNA vaccines. The boost in response means less time is needed to achieve vaccine protection. Additionally, the affordable ePatch eliminates the need for freezer storage of mRNA vaccines. That could substantially decrease the overall cost and complexity of mRNA immunizations, such as the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.