As the swine flu epidemic spread across the world last summer, Richard Compans, director of the Influenza Pathogenesis & Immunology Research Center at Emory University, began looking for mass vaccination scheme that didn’t involve crowds of people inefficiently lining up for flu shots at a clinic. At the same time, Mark Prausnitz of Georgia Tech unveiled his metal microneedle patches at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C.

Now, Prausnitz and Compans have joined forced to create a disposable, degradable microneedle flu vaccine that users could self administer in their own homes. In a July 18 paper in the journal Nature Medicine, Prausnitz and Compans detail how this vaccine patch provide a flu vaccine without a painful needle jab.

“With respect to [the previous] vaccine delivery, we worked with solid metal needles,” Compans said. “The current technology is different because the vaccine is contained in the needle itself, and there is no needle left after the process.”

Like Prausnitz’s previous metal microneedles, the new patches penetrate the skin so shallowly that they don’t trigger the body’s pain response. Each needle is only few microns long, or a bit longer than the width of a human hair. A hundred needles line the surface of the fingernail-sized patch, which would vaccinate a wearer in a few minutes.

Unlike the older, metal microneedle patches, these new patches lose their needles during the vaccination process. Each needle is made from a polymer that dissolves into the skin, releasing the vaccine and rendering cross contamination impossible, Compans said.

By virtue of having none of the danger of fully sized needles, and extreme ease of use, patches of vaccine could be sent to people for home use in the event of a serious flu outbreak, Compans said.

This would eliminate the need for healthy people to mix with the sick during a rush to vaccination centers. Those same attributes would also make these patches perfect of vaccination campaigns in the developing world, Compans said.

The patches are currently in trials with pigs, and Prausnitz and Compans hope to start human clinical trials in the next few years. However, there is no time table for when these patches might hit the general market, Compans said.