Producing drugs quickly with a portable device? This is what MIT researchers achieved, at the request of the US Department of Defense. The technologies developed to meet this requirement will revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry, and Jean-Christophe Monbaliu, researcher in organic chemistry at the University of Liège, took part in their development.

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 scientists 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 anestheticé”, 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 onto 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).

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.

(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