• Researchers in the Netherlands are developing the 'Bubble Gun', which uses laser technology to deliver 'virtually painless injections'.
  • Since fear of needles is common, this new method could increase vaccination uptake and also prevent the risk of contamination associated with traditional injections.
  • The Bubble Gun is still a work in progress and could take 1-3 years before it is available to the general public.

Researchers in the Netherlands are developing laser technology to enable "virtually painless" injections without needles in what they call a breakthrough that will ease fear and lower the threshold for vaccinations.

The "Bubble Gun" uses a laser to push tiny droplets through the outer layer of the skin, said David Fernandez Rivas, a professor at Twente University and research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who founded the idea.

The process is quicker than a mosquito bite and "should not cause pain" because nerve endings in the skin are not touched, he said, adding this would be studied further.

Energy cascade with approximate timescales for each phenomenon.
BuBble Gun features a novel injection method using confined cavitation induced by continuous wave lasers.
Image: Bubble gun

"Within a millisecond, the glass that contains the liquid is heated by a laser, a bubble is created in the liquid, pushing the liquid out at a velocity of at least 100 km per hour (60 mph)," he said during an interview at his lab.

"That allows us to penetrate the skin without damage. We don't see any wound or entry point."

Rivas expects the invention will not only help more people get vaccinated, but will also prevent the risk of contamination by dirty needles and reduce medical waste.

Testing on tissue samples has successfully been carried out with a 1.5-million-euro ($1.73 million) European Union grant. An application for funding to begin human testing with volunteers is expected to be submitted this month, Rivas said.

A new start-up company will collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry to test and market the "Bubble Gun" technology, he said.

Common phobia

It could however take 1-3 years for the method to be available to the general public, depending on the progress of research and regulatory issues.

Roughly one in five Dutch people are afraid of needles, said Henk Schenk, who offers therapy to help those suffering acutely. "Phobia of needles is more common than you might think. People are ashamed to admit it."

Some people trace their fears back to a traumatic childhood hospital admission, or are afraid of surrendering control. A small number of roughly 1 out of 1,000 have a deep phobia that requires repeated sessions to prepare them for a jab.

"During the (coronavirus) pandemic..., you see that a lot of people who had been able to avoid it are now up against the wall. People who need to get the COVID-19 vaccine are an important group for me this year."

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

Patient Astrid Nijsen, a 31-year-old musical actress who has had 10 sessions with Schenk, says she'd still feel anxious about being vaccinated, even without a needle.

"It started during puberty. When I see a needle, or have to get a shot, I just want to leave. I'll tear the place down just to avoid getting a shot," she said.

Reporting by Esther Verkaik; writing by Anthony Deutsch; editing by Mark Heinrich