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Vaccination efforts over the past century have provided numerous benefits for society, such as the ability to travel and meet friends and family during the holidays. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only reminded us all not to take these vaccines for granted, but also provided a glimpse into the future where the spread of warmer climates will bring more viral infections along with it. Preparing for these global changes will inevitably require more vaccines, but they will also require innovation in how vaccines are delivered. Shaomin Tian, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, is pursuing research to advance vaccine delivery using 3D-printing technology, and has been awarded a Junior Faculty Development Award from the Office of the Provost to help continue her work.

The Junior Faculty Development Award is given annually to provide financial support for the advancement of research from early career, untenured professors. Competitive applications are reviewed each fall along with awards for Senior Faculty Research and Scholarly Leaves. Funding for the Junior Faculty Development Award is provided by IBM and R.J. Reynolds Industries Inc.

Tian’s project aims to design 3D-printed microneedle patches for dengue virus vaccine delivery. The mosquito-borne dengue disease is caused by four different lineages, or serotypes, of dengue virus. The group of viruses that are most closely related to dengue virus include West Nile virus, yellow fever virus, and Zika virus. There are mild forms of the disease with symptoms such as fever, headache, and nausea, but in some cases, disease progresses to more severe outcomes. The virus is specific to tropical and sub-tropical climates, however its geographic range continues to widen with increasing global temperatures.

“Microneedle patches offer a pain-free method of delivering vaccines to the immune cell-rich skin epidermis and dermis,” Tian explained. “We have previously shown that protein subunit vaccines delivered by 3D-printed microneedles can result in an immune response that is 10-50 times higher than current injection-based delivery methods. In addition, microneedle patches with dry vaccine formulations could potentially avoid the need for cold chain storage, and provide a self-applicable, cost effective measure to enhance vaccination coverage, especially in remote and resource-limited settings.”

The vaccine that will be used is designed with the dengue E protein, a piece of the virus’ exterior that connects with copies of itself like a puzzle. The actual target only needs to be a small portion, or subunit, of the E protein for an effective immune response to develop.

“This award will provide support to initiate the studies on microneedle-based subunit dengue vaccine formulation with one dengue virus serotype,” Tian said. “The results and knowledge gained from this project will greatly help development of tetravalent dengue vaccines to target all four serotypes of dengue virus, and related viral vaccines delivered by microneedle patches.”

Tian’s laboratory specializes in adapting advanced engineering methods that will help regulate the human immune response during infectious disease or cancer immunotherapy. The nanoparticle technology and 3D-printed devices can be used for broad applications, as Tian is also developing approaches for sampling interstitial fluid for real-time health assessment.

Tian joined the University of North Carolina community in 2007 as a research associate in the Lineberger Cancer Center. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2007, and in the department of biochemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2003. She earned a doctoral degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, China, in 2000. Tian obtained her bachelor of science degree in biochemistry in 1995 from Shandong University in Jinan, China.