Biopharmaceutical drugs on demand at remote site could be a reality soon

Researchers at MIT have developed a portable biopharmaceutical drugs production system that can be used in remote locations – possibly even on Mars – to manufacture a range of biopharmaceuticals on demand and treat patients quickly.

The importance of this portable biopharmaceutical drugs production system derives from the fact that remote locations and battlefield often need to stock almost all kinds of drugs to tackle all possible diseases and this effectively adds to the cost, which many a times doesn’t fit the budget. People in remote locations in developing countries are often left without treatment for want of these drugs which are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies at far off locations.

To get around this, researchers at MIT describe in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications their portable system that can be used to produce a single dose of treatment from a compact device containing a small droplet of cells in a liquid. Scientists say that this system can be carried onto the battlefield, remote locations and used to produce treatments at the point of care.

The system described in the paper is based on a programmable strain of yeast, Pichia pastoris, which can be induced to express one of two therapeutic proteins when exposed to a particular chemical trigger. The researchers chose P. pastoris because it can grow to very high densities on simple and inexpensive carbon sources, and is able to express large amounts of protein. When the researchers exposed the modified yeast to estrogen β-estradiol, the cells expressed recombinant human growth hormone (rHGH). In contrast, when they exposed the cells to methanol, the yeast expressed the protein interferon.

The system comes with a millimeter-scale table-top microbioreactor where the cells are held. A liquid containing the desired chemical trigger is first fed into the reactor, to mix with the cells. Inside the reactor, the cell-and-chemical mixture is surrounded on three sides by polycarbonate; on the fourth side is a flexible and gas-permeable silicone rubber membrane. By pressurizing the gas above this membrane, the researchers are able to gently massage the liquid droplet to ensure its contents are fully mixed together.

Because the membrane is gas permeable, it allows oxygen to flow through to the cells, while any carbon dioxide they produce can be easily extracted.

The device continuously monitors conditions within the microfluidic chip, including oxygen levels, temperature, and pH, to ensure the optimum environment for cell growth. It also monitors cell density.

If the yeast is required to produce a different protein, the liquid is simply flushed through a filter, leaving the cells behind. Fresh liquid containing a new chemical trigger can then be added, to stimulate production of the next protein.

The researchers are now investigating the use of the system in combinatorial treatments, in which multiple therapeutics, such as antibodies, are used together.

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