Princeton-led technology for room-temperature vaccines and biological drugs selected as finalist in Science Center QED research accelerator program

Wednesday, Jul 28, 2021
by Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

A method that enables the storage and transport of vaccines and life-saving drugs at room temperature, eliminating the need for expensive refrigeration or freezing, is one of 12 technologies selected for development through the Philadelphia-based University City Science Center. The Science Center’s QED Proof of Concept program connects university researchers with experts to transform life-sciences discoveries into products and services that benefit human health.

Maksim Mezhericher

Maksim Mezhericher. Photo by Efim Mezhericher

Princeton Research Scholar Maksim Mezhericher will lead Princeton’s team in collaboration with Howard Stone, Princeton’s Donald R. Dixon '69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. With assistance from the QED program, the team will develop a business plan to bring to market a rapid dehydration technique that converts liquid drugs and vaccine formulations into dried powders that are stable at room temperature.

Howard Stone

Howard Stone. Photo by David Kelly Crow

The technology has the potential to lower the cost and improve the stability and reliability of vaccines and biological medications, including several cancer therapies, that are temperature-sensitive because they contain components derived from living organisms. During transportation and distribution, such therapeutics must be transferred from one refrigerator or freezer to the next, maintaining a “cold chain.”

By cutting the need for energy-intensive refrigeration and freezing, providers can make vaccines and therapies readily available to patients in areas lacking adequate infrastructure. The process could also lead to reduced maintenance costs and space requirements associated with expensive freezer equipment, and lessen the need to train employees to work with temperature-sensitive therapies.

Through the QED program, the Princeton researchers will work with business advisors and industry specialists to develop a plan to attract investors in the dehydration technology, which is in the early stages of development and requires additional formulating before it can be put into wide use.

“This project exemplifies the commitment among our faculty to making discoveries that can benefit humanity,” said Princeton Vice Dean for Innovation Rodney Priestley. Priestley leads Princeton Innovation, a University initiative that helps translate Princeton research discoveries into technologies and services through innovation and entrepreneurship. He is also the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“University-founded discoveries can have a huge impact on improving lives, creating jobs and supporting new research discoveries,” said John Ritter, director of Technology Licensing at Princeton. “We’re excited to partner with the Science Center in our shared goal of transforming academic research into impactful solutions.”

Princeton’s team is one of 12 finalists selected from regional universities to participate in the Science Center QED program, now in its 12th year. A panel of life-sciences industry and investment experts selected the projects based on potential to benefit human health.

The QED program, from the Latin Quod Erat Demonstrandum, or, “that which is demonstrated,” provides expert advice on business, patent and regulatory issues as well as access to the Science Center’s network of investors and partners. The program aims to develop early-stage life science technologies from universities that have joined the Science Center, an organization that helps discoveries become viable business ventures by working with academic institutions in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Princeton became a Science Center university partner in 2020. 

The dehydration technology involves applying a patented atomization technique to create submicron droplets that are ten to 1,000 times smaller those generated by commercial nozzles and nebulizers. Compared to existing approaches, the Princeton team’s technology is simpler, faster, more scalable and lower in cost, involving much smaller energy consumption and less environmental impact.

Early progress on the development of the technology was made possible through support from the New Jersey Health Foundation and the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science.

According to research by Mezhericher, there is tremendous need in the biopharma industry for solutions to the challenge of keeping therapeutics cold. In 2019, 45% of new drug approvals by the FDA were on temperature-sensitive products. In 2020, the total global revenue of cold-chain pharma products was greater than $340 billion.

Mezhericher said he was inspired to apply his research to the cold-chain problem by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic began in 2020,” Mezhericher said, “I began to think about how my work could be of help in fighting this disease, and I’m excited to contribute to the challenge of delivering vaccines and other needed therapeutics.”

At the end of this year, Mezhericher and Stone’s team and the other selected finalists will present their plan to a panel made up of life-sciences technology experts and venture capital investors. The three top finalists will receive up to $200,000 each to implement their plan in 2022. The funds will be provided equally between the Science Center and the finalist’s institution.