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Tagging soap bubbles with biomolecules can prove to be a more effective drug delivery method to treat viruses, cancer and other diseases, scientists say.

Researchers cover soap bubbles with biomaterials that act as a disguise, tricking the body’s cells into mistaking the capsule for a bacterium, a cancer cell or almost any other disease-causing cell.

Because the technology is flexible, cost effective and highly efficient, it is drawing a lot of attention from both public and private funders for drug delivery and vaccine production, researchers said.

"We have created a technology platform that allows us to make drug and vaccine delivery vehicles that have previously been very difficult to prepare," said Philip DeShong, Professor at the University of Maryland.

"If someone provides us with an antigen, it is possible for us to formulate it into a vaccine, purify it and have 1,000 doses ready within 72 hours," said DeShong.

The soap bubbles – formally known as functionalised catanionic surfactant vesicles – are made of a combination of soap-like components that have an affinity for each other and spontaneously form capsules when mixed together.

Compared with liposomes, another type of drug and vaccine delivery capsule that has seen success in the market, catanionic surfactant vesicles form more quickly, have an extremely long shelf life and are made of less expensive raw materials.

In the case of vaccines, the immune system recognises the camouflaged vesicle as a foreign object based on antigens attached to its exterior.

The immune system then breaks up the vesicle and mounts an immune response against the antigen presented on the surface, hopefully destroying any cells that display the same antigens that it subsequently encounters.

For drug delivery applications, the disguised vesicle is filled with medication – a cancer drug, for example – and decorated on the outside with a targeting agent that is recognised selectively by cancer cells.

As a result, the vesicle attaches preferentially to cancer cells and releases the drug.

Because the functionalised vesicles bind preferentially to cancer cells rather than normal cells, the researchers anticipate this delivery method will result in lower effective doses for the drug and reduced side effects.