On-demand continuous-flow production of pharmaceuticals in a fridge-sized system


What are the problems with traditional medicines manufacturing?

Pharmaceuticals are typically produced in large batches in a number of centralised locations. This is usually done for cost saving and efficiency reasons, which works particularly well for medicines with a steady and high demand.

However, this approach starts to run into problems when it comes to the production of rarely used, so-called “orphan drugs”. Traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing plants are not well equipped for small-scale manufacturing, which often means that, with limited stocks, these drugs are relatively difficult to get hold of. The problem becomes even graver in a situation where there is a sudden outbreak of a rare disease in a hard to reach areas. Not only can it take months, if not years, to develop a new drug and start large-scale manufacturing, getting the drug to those who need it, in the right condition, poses the next challenge.

A revolutionary approach to a more agile manufacturing process

Researchers have been working on a solution, using a setup called “flow chemistry”. Rather than producing medicines batch by batch, the process involves feeding the starting components through thin snaking tubes, allowing the chemical reactions to take place one by one for each dose. This radically speeds up the production process, from months to days, whilst also eliminating the risk of intermediate compounds undergoing unwanted chemical reactions when waiting for the next synthetic step.

Researchers led by chemist Timothy Jamison and chemical engineers Klavs Jensen and Allan Myerson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge have previously developed a flow-chemistry setup the size of a small car. However, even though the apparatus was ideal for small-scale pharmaceutical manufacturing, it proved too large and bulky to be moved around easily to different locations.

The team has thus set out to work on a smaller, more agile solution. They have now come up with a new device, the size of a household fridge. It is currently configured to produce four different drugs: an antihistamine, an anesthetic, an antidepressant, and an antianxiety drug. Admittedly, none of these medicines are particularly complex in their structure, but one should not forget that the same applies to hundreds of other drugs on the market.

Great potential for future applications

The development of this first compact flow chemistry apparatus is an important first step. We may soon be able to deal in a more effective way with sudden peaks in demand and localised outbreaks of diseases, such as influenza. It can also help speed up the development of new drugs, as it is ideal for producing smaller quantities for drug trials.

Video: What is Flow Chemistry


Related: Enhancing the resilience of the vaccine supply chain: the role of redistributed manufacturing

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