New material discovery could revolutionise rollout of global vaccinations

Monday, 02 October 2023

New raw vaccine materials that could make vaccines more accessible, sustainable, and ethical have been discovered.

Adjuvants are vaccine ingredients that boost a person’s immune response to a vaccine, providing greater protection against disease. One of the most prevalent adjuvant materials used in vaccines is squalene, which is typically sourced from shark livers.


Researchers at the University of Nottingham collaborated with the Access to Advanced Health Institute (AAHI) to identify synthetic alternatives to squalene that ensure sustainable, reliable, and ethical sourcing of adjuvant raw materials for vaccines moving forward.

New synthetic adjuvant materials were developed from commercially available methacrylate monomers, ensuring that a reliable supply of the material is continually available.

The combination of these adjuvant materials are scalable through catalytic chain transfer polymerisation, a process that allows high levels of control over the molecular weight of the product polymer. Controlling the molecular weight is key to the use of adjuvant material in formulations for vaccines as it allows for purification in the manufacturing process and optimises biological responses following immunisation.

Professor Derek Irvine, Professor of Materials Chemistry in the University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering, said: “At the moment, there are very few adjuvants approved for commercial use, so the need to find a squalene alternative is of vital importance to ensure greater access to vaccines worldwide.

“Our research has found that squalene emulsions were physically stable for less than three months at 40 degrees centigrade. Whereas our synthetic adjuvant materials produced emulsions that remained physically stable for up to 18 months at the same temperature and caused an innate immune response when tested with human cells."

Professor Derek Irvine
This could be hugely significant when it comes to increasing accessibility in developing areas of the world that don’t have ready or consistent access to the fridges or cold storage required for existing vaccines.
Professor Derek Irvine

The university’s Faculty of Engineering worked alongside the School of Chemistry to synthesise and design the adjuvant materials. These were then sent to AAHI, where they were formulated as emulsions, tested for potential toxicity and innate immune stimulation using in vitro bioassays, and assessed for physical stability.

Identifying sustainably sourced adjuvant materials enables the development of vaccine formulations without relying on sharks and may provide additional benefits such as enhanced stability.
Dr Christopher Fox, Senior Vice President of Formulations at AAHI

The results of the research have been published in Polymers, with the team now looking at more comprehensive evaluation of vaccine-specific immune responses to the new materials, as well as how the material production process can be scaled up.

To read the paper in full, please visit:

Story credits

More information is available from Derek Irvine, Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham, at

About the Faculty of Engineering:

Made up of six departments – Architecture and Built Environment, Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Engineering and Foundation Engineering and Physical Sciences – the university’s Faculty of Engineering is home to more than 5,600 students and 800 staff.

The faculty, which has educated engineers and architects for more than 140 years, was the first in the country to be accredited with an Athena SWAN Gold Award for excellence in advancing gender equality across higher education and research and is home to multiple state-of-the-art facilities, including the recently opened £40m Power Electronics and Machines Centre (PEMC).

With research at its heart, 20 research groups are undertaking pioneering projects for a sustainable future across several themes – including net zero transport, sustainable energies and the built environment, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare technologies – and has delivered a positive impact in more than 20 countries. The faculty’s research has benefitted 500 companies and three governments and has also directly created jobs for around 3,000 people across the world.

Danielle Hall - Media Relations Manager - Faculty of Engineering
Phone: 0115 846 7156

Notes to editors:

About the University of Nottingham

Ranked 32 in Europe and 16th in the UK by the QS World University Rankings: Europe 2024, the University of Nottingham is a founding member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience, and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement.

Nottingham was crowned Sports University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2024 – the third time it has been given the honour since 2018 – and by the Daily Mail University Guide 2024.

The university is among the best universities in the UK for the strength of our research, positioned seventh for research power in the UK according to REF 2021. The birthplace of discoveries such as MRI and ibuprofen, our innovations transform lives and tackle global problems such as sustainable food supplies, ending modern slavery, developing greener transport, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

The university is a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally - and our graduates are the second most targeted by the UK's top employers, according to The Graduate Market in 2022 report by High Fliers Research.

We lead the Universities for Nottingham initiative, in partnership with Nottingham Trent University, a pioneering collaboration between the city’s two world-class institutions to improve levels of prosperity, opportunity, sustainability, health and wellbeing for residents in the city and region we are proud to call home.

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