Manufacturing drugs is a complex process, often involving multiple facilities and taking weeks or months to arrive at the finished article. The lack of flexibility in the system led MIT researchers to develop a compact, all-in-one solution to allow for streamlined, speedy drug production. It can be adjusted to produce different medications, and isn't designed to replace existing manufacturing plants, but rather to complement them by providing, for example, an emergency backup solution should a facility have to be shut down.
While it's not quite as laborious as actually developing new medication, drug manufacturing is usually a pretty complex process. Normal procedure makes use of a "batch processing" setup, wherein the ingredients of the drug are synthesized at one location, before being shipped to a second plant to be turned into a consumer-ready product.
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When everything is running smoothly, this multi-site approach works fine, but when disruptive events occur – such as significantly increased demand, or even a plant shut down – the setup can't cope, potentially even grinding to a complete halt.
That's where the new system steps in – allowing for fast, portable and generally much more versatile production of a selection of drugs. Funded by DARPA, the idea is fairly simple, scaling down every stage of production so that batches are much smaller, but everything is more manageable, allowing for an all-in-one setup. It's not an entirely new idea – MIT actually came out with a much larger version (24 x 8 x 8 ft, or 7.3 x 2.4 x 2.4 m) around five years go – but the new setup is more developed, and at roughly the size of a household fridge, it's compact enough to be practical.
The design is split into two modules, with the first being where the reactions that synthesize the drug take place, at temperatures up to 250 °C (482 °F) and pressures of up to 17 atmospheres. In traditional manufacturing, this process takes place in large vats, which are difficult to keep cool. The compact system gets around the issue by housing the reactions within small tubes that can have their temperatures more easily manipulated.
Once the reactions have taken place, the solution is sent to a second module where it's purified by crystallization, before being filtered and then dried. Finally, it's dissolved or suspended in water at the required dose level. This process is monitored by an ultrasound system to confirm that the concentrations are correct.
Aside from its compact, all-in-one nature, the other big benefit of the new machine is its speed. Whereas batch processing can take months to arrive at a finished drug, the new solution can produce consumer-ready medication in as little as 24 hours, allowing it to quickly respond to disruptive situations.
It's able to produce four different drugs – Benadryl, lidocaine, Valium and Prozac – simply by changing the setup of the first stage, an adjustment that takes just a few hours. In testing, around 1,000 doses of a given drug were produced in a period of 24 hours.
Not only could the system come in useful if normal manufacturing procedures were, for whatever reason, disrupted, but it could also be used to produce small batches of drugs that would otherwise be too expensive for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture. Such medication, known as "orphan drugs," could be helpful to patients, but don't benefit from high levels of demand.
While the new system is pretty compact, the team is still working to shrink things down, aiming to create a new version that's 40 percent smaller than the current hardware, making it more convenient. The researchers also hope to make the next machine more capable, with the ability to produce more complex drugs. The possibility of producing tablets, rather than just liquid drugs, is also being investigated.
Full details of the work can be found in the journal Science.