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A portable drug factory

Typically, producing these four drugs with classical batch reactors and strategies could take several days, in a best-case scenario. The prototype developed by Jean-Christophe Monbaliu and his colleagues reduces the reaction time to an incredible 15 to 30 minutes! This new technology should soon launch a revolution for the pharmaceutical industry, as well as other chemical industries. However, it is not expected to completely replace macroscopic batch reactors, but rather complement the toolkit for chemists. ‘Microfluidics can improve 50 to 60% of the reactions studied so far, but it isn't really beneficial for the rest,’ explains Monbaliu. ‘With this new technology, we can do what we've always been doing, only much better and more efficiently. We have more insight, more control and more safety.

A revolution at the speed of miniaturisation

This tool expands chemists' horizon, as it allows them to observe reaction conditions that were previously unattainable. ‘Since we have great control over what happens inside these microfluidic reactors, we can make the reactions more intense. We can turn the heat up and access unexplored conditions such as extreme temperature and pressure, with unpreceded accelerations of chemical reactions. The reagents flow quickly through the reactors, producing exactly the desired reaction and no secondary reactions,’ underlines Monbaliu.

Why did it take centuries before a new technology could overcome the shortcomings of batch reactors? Just like in computing, the state of the art had to evolve before the highly specific tools necessary for microfluidic processes could be implemented. For instance, etching microchannels requires advanced machining techniques, and these have become increasingly affordable starting about a decade ago. ‘The portable production unit built at MIT is based on a myriad of great technological achievements. This is true whether we're talking about engineering, chemistry, or the way in which multi-step processes are carried out,’ says Monbaliu.

multiflow continuous process

The unit will never be released on the market, but the technology that was developed to build it is partially marketed by an MIT start-up company. ‘This will be a boon for the pharmaceutical industry, and for all other areas of chemistry,’ he explains. ‘Since 2007, people have been realising that new technologies must be developed in order to produce drugs with much more flexibility. The development of continuous microfuidic processes is a priority for the pharmaceutical industry.’ These processes are faster, more efficient, and more compact, and they allow finer control while making it possible to respond to a suddenly increasing demand on the market; this makes microfluidics very attractive to drug manufacturers. ‘The technology could even be used to produce drugs for orphan diseases,’ predicts the chemist. ‘This is one of the ways forward at this point, since these drugs are very expensive to produce and the number of patients is so small that pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to invest.’ As a result, with this new technology, manufacturers might consider producing orphan drugs.

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