Here we go again, anti-vaxxers keeping on moving the goalpost to fit their belief instead to change to adjust it to the facts. First it was mercury, then it was formaldehyde, then aluminum, today the “ingredient du jour” is polysorbate 80 and tomorrow they will blame it to PBS saline solution.
The latest fad as I have seen is to blame polysorbate 80 as a source of “vaccine-injury” with the bold claim that it breaks down the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Lets put the fact straight and debunk this one for all. But what is even better is the “what if” counter-argument. What if polysorbate 80 was indeed a good ingredient? I will come to that later.
Polysorbate (aka Tween 80) is a amphiphile compound as you can see the molecular structure below (source Wikipedia):
You can see the structure made of a lipophilic (loves fat) tail and a series of hydrophilic (loves water) tails, loaded with oxygen and hydroxyl groups. This is a typical structure of a detergent: one side will mix well with water, the other will mix very well with fat and oils. The result? You can form microspheres that can dissolve well in water and dissolve fat into water. This is how a detergent works, it helps to breakdown fats into small spheres and dissolve them in the drain water.
Polysorbate 80, due to this property, is very good to dissolve drugs and medicines that under normal condition would barely dissolve into biological fluids. This is why we have it in vaccines, but we also have it in medicines. Thats the job of biopharmaceutics: finding formulations to dissolve drugs into the body and allow them to reach a concentration high enough to display their therapeutic activity.
The use of polysorbate 80 in drug delivery of anti-cancerous drug is probably the first and foremost main driving factor on investigating its effect on the BBB. Brain tumors (primary and metastatic alike) are up until now one of the most dreaded and deadliest form of cancer. For instance, the average expected lifespan upon diagnosis of a grade IV glioma (aka glioblastoma multiforme) is grim: 18-months, with less than 5% survival after 5 years. The major issue is being able to deliver drugs and chemotherapy across the BBB. As reported by Pr. William Partridge (UCLA) the BBB remains the bottleneck in drug development for the treating neurological disorders (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539316/?fref=gc&dti=873247819461536)
The first report of the investigation of polysorbate 80 on the BBB is probably by Spiegelman and colleagues in 1984 (http://thejns.org/doi/pdf/10.3171/jns.1984.61.4.0674), investigating the effect of the solvent used in etoposide solution for treating cancer. According to their result, they noted a statistical difference in the BBB permeability (using Evans Blue and 99mTc as tracers) following the injection of 1.125ml/kg. According to their paper, 5mL solution contained 400mg of polysorbate 80 or a concentration of 80mg/mL. Based on this, we can assume that the BBB effect was observed for a dose of 90mg/kg. Thats a very huge dose.
If we go back to the manure anti-vaxxers say, the amount injected via vaccines is enough to cause a barrier opening. According to John Hopkins University Institute of Vaccine Safety (http://www.vaccinesafety.edu/components-DTaP.htm), the expected concentration of polysorbate is lesser or equal to 100mcg or micrograms. Thats 0.1mg per dose. If we assume such dose is injected to a newborn (average weight ~3 kgs), then the amount injected is about 0.033mg/kg. Thats 2700 times less than what has been reported to induce a BBB disruption. Also you have to factor the bioavailability of polysorbate (that is 100% upon IV route) making this number a very optimistic number.
Now, the interesting twist about polsyorbate 80 is its use to enhance some drug carriers and its widely used for finding novel formulation to enhance the delivery of anti-cancerous drugs across the BBB. You can find a list of publications on Pubmed about that aspect (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=polysorbate+80+blood-brain+barrier). What if polysorbate 80 not only will not injure your brain, but actually may help deliver drugs to help your brain fight disease?
Keep in mind that polysorbate 80 is good at dissolving lipid in water solutions but it is not good to let charged molecules accross the BBB, just in case someone comes with the claims that it conjugates with aluminum. Thats some high-school chemistry level.