A portable drug factory
Clearly, this technology offers obvious advantages in terms of reaction efficiency, but are these small reactors suitable for production? ‘Despite their small size, the reactors can quickly produce industrially viable quantities if they are operated continuously,’ explains Monbaliu. In addition, as only a small quantity of reagents is going through this type of reactor at any given time, safety is improved. ‘In the event of an explosion, the impact on the environment is much lower, with the same potential to produce large quantities,’ he continues. Their small size gives them another advantage: they can be moved when needed, acting as mobile production units.
During his postdoctoral fellowships, Jean-Christophe Monbaliu started studying chemical engineering and the application of microfluidics to organic chemistry. In 2012, he joined the famous Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, taking part in the ‘Pharmacy on Demand’ project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defense. The project's goal was to provide a strategic advantage for national security by creating a mobile drug production unit. Quite a project! ‘This portable production unit enables the production of drugs in remote areas or conflict zones, or simply to meet a sudden increase in the demand on the market for a specific drug in case of an epidemic or a shortage,’ says Monbaliu.
Drugs ready in 15 minutes!
When our young scientist started working on the project, studies had been published on applying microfluidics to organic chemistry and drug development, but none had led to the creation of such an advanced prototype. ‘The prototype we have developed can produce four very different drugs that are commonly used: an anxiolytic, an antidepressant, an antihistamine, and a local anaesthetic,’ reveals Monbaliu. ‘Beyond just producing these drugs, the unit purifies and formulates them.’ And all this in a device the size of a refrigerator! Put simply, raw reagents are introduced into the system, which produces a solution containing an active ingredient that can be directly injected into a patient's body. ‘We have pushed the boundaries in terms of microfluidics and flow chemistry, and created a very compact and fast production unit.’ The results of the study were published in Science (1).
(1) A. Adamo, R. L. Beingessner, M. Behnam, J. Chen, T. F. Jamison, K. F. Jensen, J.-C. M. Monbaliu, A. S. Myerson, E. M. Revalor, D. R. Snead, T. Stelzer, N. Weeranoppanant, S. Y. Wong, P. Zhang. On-demand continuous-flow production of pharmaceuticals in a compact, reconfigurable system. Science, 2016; 352 (6281): 61 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf1337