MIT chemical engineers have developed a portable drugs manufacturing system whose output can be reconfigured for use in disaster zones – or fill in for when traditional production fails.
The team compares the system with an emergency generator that can be deployed in extraordinary circumstances such as an unexpected disease outbreak, manufacturing plant shutdown, or to produce small quantities for drug trials or rare diseases. The system (pictured) measures around 180 cm by 100 cm by 50 cm.
“The goal of this project was to build a small-scale, portable unit that was completely integrated, so you could imagine being able to ship it anywhere. And as long as you had the right chemicals, you could make pharmaceuticals,” says MIT chemical engineering professor Klavs Jensen.
The point is to supplement not replace traditional drug manufacturing, says the researchers. The MIT team has already conducted research with drug major Novartis to shift large-scale production away from batch towards continuous manufacturing processes.
This new system builds on that ongoing work, but shifts the focus towards a much smaller, transportable device. It can produce four drugs formulated as solutions or suspensions – Benadryl, lidocaine, Valium, and Prozac – and can manufacture about 1,000 doses in 24 hours.
For continuous production, chemical reactions take place as the reactants flow through the small tubes in the system, rather than the huge vats used in traditional production. The chemical reactions used to synthesise the drugs occur in the first of two modules, allowing reactions to take place at temperatures up to 250oC and pressures reaching 17 atmospheres.
By swapping in different module components, the researchers can easily reconfigure the system to produce different drugs. “Within a few hours we could change from one compound to the other,” Jensen says.
In the second module, the drug is crystallised, filtered and dried to remove the solvent, and then dissolved or suspended in water ready to consume. The system also includes ultrasound monitoring to test the drug solution is at the correct concentration.
“This sets the foundation for a new paradigm in terms of the way we manufacture pharmaceuticals and distribute them to patients,” says John Lewin, the division director of critical care and surgery pharmacy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, US, who was not involved in the study. “Such a device could really meet a lot of the supply chain challenges here in the US and around the world.”
Jansen says the system would help improve the economics of producing drugs for rare diseases which are prohibitively expensive to manufacture at large scale, and would also help in regions with few drug storage facilities.
“The idea here is you make what you need, and you make a simple dosage form, because they’re going to be taken on demand. The dosages don’t have to have long-term stability,” says researcher Allan Myerson. “People line up, you make it, and they take it.”
The team are now working to make the system 40% smaller within the year, and produce drugs whose chemical syntheses are more complex, and manufacture tablets rather than just liquid drugs.
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