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Researcher Wins New Innovator Award to Study Oral Vaccine Delivery

Assistant Professor Harvinder Gill received a five-year, $2.2 million grant from National Institutes of Health.

Written by Karin Slyker

Harvinder Gill is an assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Harvinder Gill is an assistant professor of chemical engineering.

A Texas Tech University chemical engineering researcher received a five-year, $2.2 million grant in direct cost from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study an innovative oral vaccine delivery platform.

Harvinder Gill, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, is one of 51 recipients of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, and will use the funding to study the use of pollen grains for oral vaccine delivery.

“Pollen grains have a tough outer shell that can withstand the harsh acid and enzyme-rich environment in the stomach associated with the digestion process,” Gill said. “We can remove the plant material inside the pollens and load vaccine into the empty shell for delivery through the stomach to the intestine and into the body, much like a Trojan horse.”

Currently a vaccine is typically given by a health care professional through intramuscular injection, which can be expensive, painful, and has an element of risk. A vaccine given orally can be painless, child-friendly, self-administrable and increases mucosal immunity in areas like the intestines and lungs, so that the bacteria or virus can be neutralized even before it can infect the body, Gill said.

Risk of pollen allergies is mitigated in this delivery system, because not only is the pollen shell made of a natural polymer that is non-allergenic, but also the plant proteins that cause allergies are removed during the pollen-cleaning process.

The pollen grain-based oral vaccination approach has safely stimulated a successful immune response in mice. The NIH grant will allow Gill to continue development of this system and bring it closer to human use by fully understanding how the pollens help to stimulate a strong immune response and by assessing their potential to induce mucosal immune responses.

“Dr. Gill’s new delivery mechanism is not just interesting science; it is a technology with the potential to impact patients all over the world,” said Jodey Arrington, Vice Chancellor for Research, Commercialization, and Federal Relations. “Getting this discovery from the bench to the bedside is the ultimate goal.  We have already filed one patent application for his research and plan to file an additional application in the near future.” 

Gill received his Bachelor of Engineering in Chemical Engineering with honors from Panjab University, India. He then worked in the chemical and petroleum industry for seven years. Subsequently he obtained his doctoral degree in Bioengineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and his postdoctoral training in influenza vaccines in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Emory University. He joined Texas Tech as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering in 2009. This is his third NIH grant. He also has received numerous other honors and awards.

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award initiative, established in 2007, addresses two important goals: stimulating highly innovative research and supporting promising new investigators. The award supports exceptionally creative new investigators who propose projects that have the potential for unusually high impact. It recognizes researchers at the start of their career, when they may not yet have the preliminary data required to receive traditional NIH funding.

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Whitacre College of Engineering
The Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering

The Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering has educated engineers to meet the technological needs of Texas, the nation and the world since 1925.

Approximately 4,300 undergraduate and 725 graduate students pursue bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees offered through eight academic departments: civil and environmental, chemical, computer science, electrical and computer, engineering technology, industrial, mechanical and petroleum.

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