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Fraunhofer IZI: Inactivating pathogens with low-energy electrons

Vaccines are currently a great beacon of hope. After all, they should help to arm society against COVID-19 and pave the way back to normal life. Although the focus is currently clearly on the corona virus, vaccines against other pathogens are also elementary. A research team from three Fraunhofer institutes has now developed a more efficient, faster and environmentally friendly production of vaccines compared to conventional production - and has received the Fraunhofer prize "Technology for people and their environment" for this.

The ways to produce vaccines have been known for decades. However, with a new process for the production of inactivated "dead vaccines" vaccines can be produced not only faster, but also more environmentally friendly, more efficiently and more cheaply than before. Representing their teams, Dr. Sebastian Ulbert and Dr. Jasmin Fertey from the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology IZI in Leipzig, Frank-Holm Rögner from the Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP in Dresden, and Martin Thoma from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart with the Fraunhofer Prize "Technology for Humans and their Environment" 2021. The jury emphasized in particular "the simple and efficient method of largely preserving the structures that are important for the effectiveness of the vaccine and completely dispensing with chemical additives that would otherwise be necessary".

Accelerated electrons instead of chemicals: kill viruses in milliseconds
So far, the production of dead vaccines has been based on chemicals: The pathogens are stored with toxic chemicals, especially formaldehyde - until the genetic information of the viruses has been completely destroyed and they can no longer multiply. This is called inactivation. However, this is problematic in several respects: On the one hand, the chemical also destroys part of the external structures that the immune system needs to form the antibodies. In addition, large quantities of toxic chemicals are involved in the industrial production of vaccines, which poses a safety challenge and an environmental burden. And: depending on the virus, it can take weeks, sometimes even months, until the viruses are actually »killed«.

The innovative approach of the Fraunhofer team of experts does not have any of these disadvantages. "Instead of inactivating the viruses with toxic chemicals, we bombard them with electrons," explains Ulbert. "The outer shell of the virus remains almost completely intact, we don't have any chemicals that need to be disposed of, and the whole process only takes a few seconds." The hurdle that had to be overcome: the electrons can penetrate liquids only a few hundred micrometers deep , where they lose energy. If viruses swimming around in the liquid are to be reliably killed by the electrons, the liquid film must not be thicker than about 100 micrometers - it must also be transported evenly. "This required sophisticated system technology, which is why we brought Fraunhofer IPA on board," says Rögner.

On the way to industrial application
At the Fraunhofer IPA, Martin Thoma developed two approaches to solve the challenge. "The bag module is suitable for meaningful preliminary tests, while the roll module scores with larger quantities," describes the graduate physicist. On this setup, Fertey examined, among other things, influenza, zika and herpes viruses as well as numerous bacteria and parasites, which were treated with specifically accelerated electrons via bag and roller modules. "We were able to successfully and safely inactivate all classes of pathogens," says the biologist happily.

The prototype was completed in 2018, put into operation and further developed at the Fraunhofer IZI. In the following year, the research team found a license partner and contractually secured license income of almost one million euros. In about five to seven years, the refrigerator-sized manufacturing modules could be integrated into pharmaceutical production and produce vaccines - quickly, environmentally friendly and efficiently.

Source: Press release Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology IZI from May 05.05.2021th, XNUMX

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