Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working hard for a long time to find a way to manufacture drugs in a fast, portable, micro-manufacturing plant – and they've finally done it. The machine they've created is capable of performing the same processes as a full-scale pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in an environment the fraction of a plant's size, equal roughly to the mass of an ordinary kitchen refrigerator.
How Drugs Are Manufactured Now
The production of modern medicine, which has been around for nearly 200 years, has followed a process that has evolved little since its inception. Pharmaceutical manufacturers take drug recipes that have been formulated by medical scientists and begin to create those drugs by:
- Synthesizing and cooling large chemical batches
- Synthesizing the cooled batches again to create new compounds
- Cooling and crystallizing the new compounds
- Filtering and drying the crystals
- Milling the medicine into powders for human consumption
- Final processing into tablets, capsules, injectables, etc.
The steps in the process don't happen instantly. Cooling, drying, and crystallization can all take months, and so can chemical synthesis. The cost of the energy, labor and time investment in pharmaceuticals combined with the monopolistic nature of the drug industry means that drugs are in short supply and extremely expensive.
How Drugs Are Manufactured with the New Machine
MIT Pharmacy On Demand Prototype
Image Source: news.mit.edu
The new drug manufacturing machine, an effort headed by MIT chemical engineering professor Allan Myerson and his partners, takes advantage of the tried and true processes of drug manufacturing and puts them in an automatic gauntlet. Each part of the process is continuous and maximizes efficiency.
All processes are done inside the machine, from synthesis to crystallization to milling and final processing. The traditional approach to production sends drugs to multiple locations to complete their creation, but MIT's mini manufacturing plant centralizes everything into what researchers are calling flow processing.
Molecules must be made differently inside the machine. Crafting these new molecules has been one of the greatest challenges researchers have faced so far. However, learning how to do so has also opened up opportunities for developers to use new molecule creation techniques in other fields.
What the New Machine Will Do for the Pharmaceutical World
The machine is intended to be an alternative to traditional drug manufacturing, not a replacement. John Lewin, director of critical care and surgery pharmacy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, believes that small-scale drug production will open doors for patients who don't have access to the drugs they need. Lower production costs and local production will allow those without the financial means to seek treatment to finally acquire the medicines necessary for full-scale treatment.
Manufacturing of orphan drugs, or drugs that have a small patient base and aren't financially viable for full-scale production, can be made in-house at hospitals where those patients need fast and constant access to particular medicines.
Drug storage may also change. If the machine is successful, drugs can be generated on-demand and always fresh. Doctors and pharmacists can prepare only the volume of medicine they need to treat patients and reserve resources for on-the-spot production.
Applications for the New Machine
Already, the Department of Defense is aiding the research team in making improvements on the size and efficiency of micro-manufacturing. Officials believe that the new drug production device will help get essential medicines to troops in combat zones, help with quarantining and treatment on disease control missions, improve health maintenance on humanitarian missions, and provide instant relief for those seeking shelter and healthcare following natural disasters and emergencies.
As a portable device, cargo aircraft can drop medicine machines into remote areas or war zones where healthcare is either difficult to find or nonexistent. It has the potential to change the face of worldwide healthcare and may help to eradicate deadly diseases in areas that don't have access to modern medicine.
The Long Road to Ultimate Care
MIT researchers have a mountain of roadblocks to overcome before their venture can turn into a viable healthcare solution.
On the drug industry side:
· • Industry leaders are concerned about violations of intellectual property rights if hospitals and remote regions have access to the tools necessary to manufacture medicine.
· • Hospitals and patients are worried about the safety of drugs produced in a miniature lab. Whereas mass production centers have access to the resources necessary to compose drugs according to a set standard and test those drugs for safety, instant medicine manufacturing doesn't enjoy the same luxuries.
As for the MIT researchers:
· • The machine needs a size reduction to work effectively as a portable production center. The goal is to squeeze the machine to be 40% smaller than it currently is.
· • The processing is only capable of making basic drug combinations. Work must be done to improve the process and make more complex drugs with complicated chemical syntheses.
· • As of now, the machine cannot make tablets because of the complexity of crafting such a portable and easily digestible form of medicine.
However, with its current backing and media attention, researchers may garner the resources they need to see the project through to a conclusion that will impact the healthcare world in an unexpected way.