Remote areas of the world often struggle with access to medicine and vaccines

Portable biotech drug system to get vaccines to remote and dangerous places

A portable system that produces tiny batches of biotech drugs could help get crucial medicines and vaccines to places where they’re desperately needed, such as remote villages and war-torn regions.

The portable production system can make a single dose of liquid medicine from a machine containing programmable yeast cells, researchers have reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Although the manufacturing process is still experimental and expensive, this finding potentially offers medical staff the ability to produce single doses of medicines and vaccines on demand - even in places where biotech drugs are often unavailable because they are difficult to transport and store.

"[Medicines] typically require refrigerated trucks transporting drugs across borders, which is an expensive and sometimes dangerous process," said Timothy Lu, senior study author and a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"Similarly, in war zones or in case of natural disasters, the transport routes may be compromised for long periods of time. Additionally, after transporting drugs, refrigeration may be needed to preserve the drug until it's used."

So far, the strain of yeast - Pichia pastoris - used in the study has been tested making two proteins with therapeutic uses: recombinant human growth hormone (which can treat short stature caused by a number of disorders) and interferon (which can treat a variety of viruses and cancers).

The tabletop-sized machine has the potential to produce proteins to treat a wide range of conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and hemophilia, Lu said.

Researchers are currently redesigning the manufacturing process from the ground up because there is no precedent for this sort of tiny batch production. While small batch production is much more expensive than making similar medicines en masse in factories, the flexibility and freedom offered by the study would benefit patients in remote locations who could receive medicines created on demand.

Challenges to the concept becoming a reality include the need for regulatory approval to manufacture drugs in this way and also identifying a way to ensure the raw ingredients of the vaccines aren't damaged or contaminated en route.

The finished vaccines and medicines can also degrade relatively quickly because they are made from living cells, potentially rendering them ineffective within a short time. The ability to produce and administer the medicine virtually instantaneously could help mitigate this issue.

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