The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) News reported that researchers at the university have developed a way to record a person’s vaccination history and store the data in a pattern of dye, invisible to the naked eye, by infusing it under the skin at the same time the vaccine is given.1
The idea is to expand and enhance vaccine surveillance data collection by eliminating the need for paper and electronic medical records, particularly in developing countries.1 MIT News states that several years ago, the MIT team began developing a method to record vaccination data that does not require a centralized electronic database by storing vaccine history data in the bodies of those being vaccinated
Storing Vaccine Records in Children’s Bodies Ensures All Get Vaccinated
The justification given by the researchers for infusing a dye-based vaccine record under the skin of children at the time of vaccination is that most vaccination protocols involve administration of multiple doses and, without accurate records, children may not receive all of the doses.1 Dr. Kevin McHugh, a former MIT postdoctoral researcher and a coauthor of the study, stated:
In areas where paper vaccination cards are often lost or do not exist at all, and electronic databases are unheard of, this technology could enable the rapid and anonymous detection of patient vaccination history to ensure that every child is vaccinated.1
Dr. Ana Jaklenec, a biomedical researcher at MIT and a coauthor of the study said that this technology so far only has been tested on human cadavers and rats. However, human testing is to begin in Africa in two years.2
The research project has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Koch Institute Support Grant by the National Cancer Institute.1
Invisible Micro-Needle Patch Vaccines
The research conducted at MIT was published in Science Translational Medicine in December 2019. Authors described how the new technology would utilize micro-needle patch vaccines that could encode data into an individual for at least five years after administration. Since micro-needle patches are being developed to deliver vaccines in the near future, the study showed that the dye could be easily incorporated into these patches.1 3 The dissolvable micro-needle patches that deliver patterns of near-infrared light-emitting micro-particles to the skin are invisible to the eye but can be seen using modified smartphones.3
The micro-needles used in study were made of dissolvable sugar and a polymer called PVA, as well as the quantum-dot dye and the vaccine itself. When the patch is applied to the skin, the micro-needles partially dissolve and release within about two minutes.1
By loading micro-particles into the micro-needles, the patches deliver a pattern in the skin such as a cross or circle, which will show up on the screen of a smartphone that has its infrared filter removed, revealing a person’s vaccine history status.2 By co-delivering these micro-particles along with the vaccine, the pattern of particles in the skin creates an in-body vaccination record.3
The study found that patterns were detected nine months after intradermal delivery of micro-particles in rats. Co-delivery of inactivated poliovirus vaccine led to antibody production.1 Micro-needle delivered micro-particle patterns in pig and pigmented human skin were identifiable using semi-automated machine learning.
These results were considered to be proof of concept for intradermal vaccination recordkeeping.3 Researchers say that the quantum dots are safe to use in this manner because they are encapsulated in a biocompatible polymer; however, further studies will be conducted before testing it in humans.1
Privacy and Informed Consent Concerns
This type of in-body vaccine record keeping and surveillance raises several questions, one of which is the potential threat to privacy.4 It raises also raises questions about whether adults and parents of minor children will provide voluntary informed consent to having a new mark applied for each vaccine and whether there are adverse health consequences in a growing child.2
According to Dr. Mark Prausnitz, a bioengineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who helped develop the micro-needle vaccine technology:
There may be other concerns that patients have about being ‘tattooed,’ carrying around personal medical information on their bodies or other aspects of this unfamiliar approach to storing medical records.”4 Different people and different cultures will probably feel differently about having an invisible medical tattoo.4
The Gates Foundation is continuing this project and funding surveys in Kenya, Malawi and Bangladesh to determine whether people will be ready and willing to adopt these microscopic quantum dots that store vaccination histories in the body.2
1 Trafton A. Storing medical information below the skin’s surface. MIT News Dec. 18, 2019.
2 France-Presse A. MIT develops dye for storing medical records under the skin. South China Morning Post Dec. 19, 2019.
3 McHugh K. et al. Biocompatible near-infrared quantum dots delivered to the skin by micro-needle patches record vaccination. Science Translational Medicine 2019; 11(523).
4 Weintraub K. Invisible Ink Could Reveal whether Kids Have Been Vaccinated. Scientific American Dec. 18, 2019.