Scientists have created a compact machine that can churn out thousands of doses of prescription medication in a day-putting the capabilities of a drug-manufacturing plant into a device the size of a kitchen refrigerator.
Experts said the advance could eventually allow on-the-spot drug production in special circumstances-on the battlefield, during epidemics, after natural disasters, or in cases where a drug is needed for a rare medical condition, for instance.
For now, the system is limited to making liquid versions of four common prescription drugs: the antidepressant fluoxetine; diphenhydramine hydrochloride, an antihistamine that includes brand-names like Benadryl; the sedative diazepam; and lidocaine, a widely used local anesthetic.
The researchers say that drug list can be expanded.
Many drug companies are already looking into alternative processing methods-ones that are “Continuous” and can be done at one location, Jensen said.
The traditional way of drug-making is similar to cooking, according to Rainer Martin, a senior scientist with drug company Hoffmann-La Roche, in Basel, Switzerland.
Martin, who wrote an editorial published with the study, explained the process this way: Drugs are made in “Batches,” and the ingredients-broad groups of chemicals known as reagents, catalysts and solvents-are gradually added into a vat, stirred and heated.
Martin said he could envision the compact system being used in a number of scenarios: During a disease outbreak in a refugee camp or remote area, for example, or by individual hospitals that need large amounts of a particular drug on a regular basis.
When it comes to everyday health care it’s difficult to see how an appliance-sized drug machine could fit in, according to Osterhaus.
As a pharmacist, he said, he has access to about 6,000 drugs right now.
Jensen said he also envisions larger health systems, like a hospital network or a health plan, being able to manufacture their own drugs.
One is how the raw materials for making the drugs would be delivered: “Would it be, for example, in the way of cartridges, similar to ink for inkjet printers?” he said.