According to researchers, the best defense against fast-moving diseases like bird flu may one day be a DNA vaccine tattoo under your skin. Using slightly modified tattoo guns, scientists are attempting to deliver DNA vaccines, a potent form of medication that is easily engineered in vast quantities to protect against diseases like HIV and malaria.

tattoo gun

DNA vaccines are not new, but scientists have struggled to devise an effective way to get them into the body. The tattoo gun, which implants the DNA vaccine as “ink” under the surface of the skin, could prove the ideal delivery mechanism, making DNA vaccines viable for the first time.

Matin Müller, a researcher at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, says “Tattooing could lead to more commercial uses of DNA vaccines”. DNA vaccines have long promised “programmable” vaccines that can be quickly genetically engineered to mimic any emerging virus and grown quickly inside bacteria. But unlike the disarmed viruses used in standard vaccines, DNA injected into the body doesn’t naturally give rise to immunity.

But Müller claims his technique does the trick, getting an immune system response comparable to regular vaccines. “We get about 200-fold higher responses compared to conventional injection (of a DNA vaccine),” he said.

Using a modified tattoo gun, Müller tattooed mice with DNA programmed to create human papillomavirus proteins, which generated high levels of antibodies and white blood cells tuned to those antigens.

But the technique comes at a cost — pain — that could limit its application. And there’s no easy way around it because the injury associated with tattooing, Mülller said, is likely a key ingredient in generating an effective immune response.

The trauma is probably required, he said, because the disturbance to the skin naturally draws extra immune system cells to the area. The increased number of cells encountering the viral proteins provokes a more potent immune system response.

Once injected into the patient’s body, the plasmids enter cells and begin to produce proteins, which generate an immune response. The immune response is more complete with DNA vaccines than with standard vaccines because they also stimulate the production of killer T cells, which are important in controlling some types of infection, Belshe said. Müller’s team used an off-the-shelf tattoo gun (sans colored ink) for their work, which is published online in the open-access journal, Genetic Vaccines and Therapy. They are continuing their experiments.