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Pioneering process could speed vaccine development

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A UK firm believes its membrane emulsification technology could enable the economic and rapid deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dai Hayward, chief executive of Teesside-based Micropore Technologies, says vaccine developers from around the globe are interested in the precision and large-scale production capability of his company’s technology.

The process provides a new, accurate and scalable method of creating emulsions which is a vital stage in the development of liposomes for a synthetic vaccine.

Hayward says: “It’s similar to the result you get from a kitchen blender: blitzing oil and vinegar to make dressing for your salad, although, obviously, with a great deal more control.”

The idea behind Micropore’s membrane emulsification – injecting identical droplets through a precision engineered, laser drilled stainless steel membrane – is not a new one.

“But for years this has languished in laboratories because nobody could crack the engineering issues around it,” says Hayward.

In 2017, Micropore made the key breakthrough to solve the problem which had been preventing large scale production.

Homogenisation – which uses equipment similar to a domestic blender – has for decades been the tried and trusted method of emulsification, but said Hayward, it can be wasteful and produce uneven sizes of particles which affect the quality and performance of the product.

There are more than 160 teams across the world trying to develop a vaccine against covid-19.

Many scientists, including researchers at Imperial College London, are using a process called microfluidics, which provides far more precision than homogenisation but is likely to be impractical in producing the required quantities.

Hayward says: “At some stage microfluidics are going to run out of road and that’s the point where we come in.

“We have had a number of people who have come to us based on what they have done with their microfluidics approach and say they’re trying to scale up but can’t.”

As well as pharmaceutical companies, Micropore has clients throughout the world operating in a diverse range of sectors: cosmetics, paint, oilfield chemicals, agriculture chemicals and a producer of rocket fuel.

Hayward adds: “Our process gives you precision and therefore control over the way that the product works.

“The scalability then allows that to go to whatever anybody wants – and in the case of a vaccine that isn’t actually that huge in terms of quantity – but for a household laundry product that’s tens of thousands of tonnes.”

Micropore Technologies was launched in 2003 as a spin-out business from Loughborough University before moving to the Wilton Centre in Redcar in 2016.

Last year Hayward was honoured with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to international trade and the North-east chemical industry.

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