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Zombie Virus research could save lives and money

Graduate student Random Diessner collecting virus samples from hot springs.

Researchers at Portland State University (PSU) have found a way to preserve viruses in a glassy, dissolvable substance – a technique that could extend the shelf life of vaccines and allow for storage at room temperatures.

The discovery by PSU biology professor Ken Stedman and graduate student James Laidler shows that viruses – which form the basis of many vaccines – can be covered with a silicate coating that keeps them in a state of suspended animation. The coating harmlessly melts away when it's ingested by or injected into a living host. Stedman nicknamed the process "zombification" because the "undead" viruses come back to life once the coating has been removed.

Vaccines are often extremely fragile and will spoil quickly if they’re not stored at cold temperatures. Up to 50 percent of vaccines spoil due to inadequate refrigeration during transport. The new preservation technique could drastically reduce spoilage and allow for easier, more inexpensive transport and storage within the developing world.

"It's really hard to put a fridge on the back of a donkey," Stedman said. "This process has the potential to stabilize vaccines so that they can get to more places and more people more often. Six million people per year – mostly children – die from diseases that could be helped with vaccination." The process could save the pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines about $2.3 billion per year by cutting product losses, Stedman added. It would also reduce the cost of shipping and encourage the development of new markets.