MIT has just published the early findings of a new project, designed to enable both doctors and patients to synthesise medications on demand. This exciting new innovation, published in Nature Communications, will use a base combination of bacteria, yeast, and methanol, along with other ingredients in a proprietary delivery system to create a portable manufacturing plant for expensive medications, or those with a short shelf life.

The report demonstrates how the device will utilise the natural programming within cells to create controlled concentrations of, in the cited example, either interferon or human growth hormone (rhGH), or, as described by MIT senior engineer Tim Lu,

“… rapid and switchable production of two biologics from a single yeast strain as specified by the operator.”

While the benefits of generating rhGH or interferon using a portable method are limited, when translated to other medications, the technology stands to revolutionise the way medical practitioners manage situations like outbreaks in remote communities and isolated areas.

For example, anti-venom for incidents such as snake or spider bite is extraordinarily expensive, and requires special storage to maintain its effectiveness and viability. Through using base ingredients, the new technology can theoretically create as much anti-venom as is required, without the need for additional storage initiatives or special planning. First responders also, can be more prepared in that they have a library of medications available to them without the need for huge amounts of storage. This also has the added bonus of meaning emergency services can be sent to a scene faster, without knowing the exact nature of the scenario, as all contingencies are catered for.

Likewise, isolated communities, and remote families can cover themselves for all foreseeable circumstances with one device, as multiple medications can be produced by the same system, simply by flushing out the micro bioreactor with clean, sterile liquid. Lu, however is thinking even further afield.

“Imagine you were on Mars… you could program the yeast to produce drugs on demand, locally.”

The team is now working on engineering single strains of biologics that can coexist, enabling diverse combinations of medications to be administered quickly and easily. The concept being that, if the commonalities between medications can be manipulated, currently expensive antibodies and medicines can be produced quickly and easily without the need for central distribution. Lu sees this as a way for organisations such as Doctors without Borders to be able to do more with less.

“If you could engineer a single strain, or maybe even a consortia of strains that grow together to manufacture combinations of biologics or antibodies, that could be a powerful way of producing these drugs at a reasonable cost.”

There is an obvious impact on the pharmaceutical industry also, as the technology will enable consumers to produce their own medications, without the need for a trip to the pharmacy. One pundit pointed out the legal ramifications and the regulatory nightmare that could ensue. “Imagine if someone could produce heroine or cocaine, or a version of these drugs on demand. How do you police that?

Regulatory issues aside, if results continue as MIT hopes they will, a potential solution to medication shortages and the rampant spread of curable diseases could be on the horizon.