KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Technology is changing the way medicine and medical care is delivered. Time now for All Tech Considered.
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MCEVERS: We're starting today with a prototype of a whole new way of manufacturing drugs. It comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. WBUR's Martha Bebinger takes a look at what could become the on-demand pharmacy.
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: In a lab at MIT, all the work that happens in a vast pharmaceutical manufacturing plant shrinks to a device the size of your kitchen refrigerator. It produces a thousand pills in 24 hours, as compared to a month or more per factory batch. MIT professor of chemical engineering Allan Myerson says it's a whole new option for anyone who makes drugs.
ALLAN MYERSON: We're giving them an alternative to traditional plants, and we're reducing the time it takes to manufacture a drug.
BEBINGER: The Defense Department is funding this project, and might drop the devices at field hospitals for troops in a jungle to help combat a disease outbreak or at strategic spots across the U.S.
MYERSON: If there was an emergency, you could have these little plants located all over. You just turn them on and you start churning out different pharmaceuticals that are needed.
BEBINGER: This mini plant represents a sea change in both size and the way chemistry's been done for a long time.
TIM JAMISON: For roughly two centuries, to be honest.
BEBINGER: Tim Jamison heads the chemistry department at MIT and is one of Myerson's partners.
JAMISON: The way that we tend to do chemistry is in flasks and beakers and that sort of thing. And we call that batch chemistry - one batch at a time.
BEBINGER: That's the way virtually all pharmaceuticals are made. You synthesize big batches of chemicals, wait for them to cool down, synthesize again to create new compounds, wait for the compounds to crystallize, filter and dry. Then you add powders to make a tablet or capsule. This new device, says Jamison, produces pills in one fast, continuous process.
JAMISON: So we had to figure out new ways to make molecules, new ways to think about making molecules. But from my perspective, that has also provided us with a lot of opportunities that are very powerful.
BEBINGER: Powerful for consumers if these devices wind up in hospitals and pharmacies that then make their own pills as needed. James McQuivey is an analyst at Forrester Research.
JAMES MCQUIVEY: If it can be done at lower cost, well, now here's one way at least that we could reduce the exorbitant cost of medication.
BEBINGER: Now most of the cost of an expensive drug is not the materials or manufacturing or transportation, says McQuivey. It's in the drug makers' monopoly control.
MCQUIVEY: If we can distribute the manufacturing so that more people have the opportunity to manufacture it, well, now there will be competition among those manufacturers.
BEBINGER: Drug makers have at least two big concerns.
PAUL BENINGER: Intellectual property (laughter).
BEBINGER: Dr. Paul Beninger, who oversees pharmaceutical safety at Genzyme Sanofi, points out that drug manufacturers own exclusive rights to produce the drugs they develop for a period of time. His other worry? Safety. Who would monitor all of these machines to make sure they are making the medication as directed with no contamination?
BENINGER: There are some really significant issues that this MIT project has to deal with if they're going to try and make this a successful venture.
BEBINGER: MIT researchers say continuous monitoring would be built into the production process. On the patent concern, MIT says the device is making generic drugs to start - seven so far - but that pharmacies or hospitals might someday license the right to produce new drugs. For now, these scientists are focused on making an even smaller, more portable unit and seeking FDA approval for the device in the next two or three years. For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.
MCEVERS: This story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR, WBUR and Kaiser Health News.
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