Media Releases

Multi-institutional Research Team Creates Portable, On-Demand Biomolecular Manufacturing Platform for DIY Therapeutics

September 22, 2016

Toron­to, ON – As much as 80 per cent of the cost of bring­ing vac­cines to the devel­op­ing world comes from ensur­ing that the med­ica­tions are prop­er­ly refrig­er­at­ed and trans­port­ed. Most vac­cines need to main­tain a con­sis­tent tem­per­a­ture to pre­vent spoilage and main­tain their effi­ca­cy, which neces­si­tates a cold chain from pro­duc­tion to appli­ca­tion. Despite these pre­cau­tions and the atten­tion paid to their trans­porta­tion, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion and Unit­ed Nations Children’s Fund esti­mate that the amount of essen­tial vac­cines that end up wast­ed could be as high as 50%.

Researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, MIT, Har­vard, and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa pub­lished a proof-of-prin­ci­ple paper in Cell today that address­es this issue by devel­op­ing a plat­form able to man­u­fac­ture on-site, on-demand ther­a­peu­tics and bio­mol­e­cules.

The new portable drug-man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tem uses two sets of freeze-dried com­po­nents that, when mixed with water, is able to pro­duce med­ica­tions, ther­a­peu­tics, and diag­nos­tic tools vir­tu­al­ly any­where.

The first of these com­po­nents is an inno­v­a­tive cell-free syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy “machin­ery” devel­oped by the team in 2014 that pro­vides a man­u­fac­tur­ing infra­struc­ture where the end prod­uct is pro­duced. The sec­ond com­po­nent is DNA instruc­tions that tell the man­u­fac­tur­ing piece what com­pound to pro­duce. This pel­let can be cus­tomized to gen­er­ate a vari­ety of prod­ucts, includ­ing vac­cines, anti-can­cer anti­bod­ies, and diag­nos­tic tools. When the two freeze-dried pel­lets are com­bined with water, the pro­duc­tion process begins.

“In essence, it’s like hav­ing a portable phar­ma­cy that you can use to cre­ate the med­ica­tions you need,” notes Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor Kei­th Pardee of the Leslie Dan Fac­ul­ty of Phar­ma­cy, co-lead author of the paper.

Through the sim­ple act of rehy­drat­ing the com­po­nents by adding water, vac­cines, anti­body-based drugs for can­cer treat­ment, small mol­e­cules, and clin­i­cal tools like diag­nos­tic sys­tems spring to life, bring­ing tools and treat­ments to under­served pop­u­la­tions across the globe.

The pos­si­ble appli­ca­tions for this dis­cov­ery, he explains, are almost end­less.

“If, for exam­ple, the influen­za vac­cine devel­oped in a giv­en year is off tar­get and does­n’t fight the strains of the virus that emerge, the sys­tem we’ve devel­oped can address that. The cur­rent pro­duc­tion chain for the influen­za vac­cine begins in late spring ear­ly sum­mer for fall and win­ter appli­ca­tion. If the for­mu­la is wrong, it would take months to change, pro­duce, ship, and admin­is­ter a vac­cine that hits on the right strains.”

“Where­as with our sys­tem, in the­o­ry, once the prop­er strains are iden­ti­fied and a new for­mu­la devel­oped, the vac­cine could pro­duced any­where in a mat­ter of hours. The mate­ri­als would already be on the shelf – they’d just need to be pro­grammed to pro­duce the vac­cine. While this is just a proof-of-con­cept study, this could mean no pro­longed pro­duc­tion time, no time­ly and expen­sive ship­ping.”

These freeze-dried com­po­nents last for at least a year at room tem­per­a­ture, mak­ing ship­ping and stor­age easy and con­sid­er­ably less expen­sive than tra­di­tion­al means – even to the most remote areas. It also means that the prod­ucts can be stored on the shelf, ready to be acti­vat­ed when an out­break occurs or when­ev­er the need aris­es.

“This tech­nol­o­gy could even be applied for use in remote Antarc­tic research bases or for some­thing as fan­ci­ful as space trav­el,” notes Dr. Pardee. “If deployed in com­bi­na­tion with a DNA syn­the­siz­er, the gene sequences that encode the man­u­fac­tur­ing instruc­tions could be elec­tron­i­cal­ly trans­mit­ted to remote end users, con­vert­ed to DNA, and used to guide the cell-free man­u­fac­tur­ing plat­form to pro­duce ther­a­peu­tics to meet unan­tic­i­pat­ed needs.”

“By freeze dry­ing the DNA con­structs and the cell-free syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy sys­tem into a eas­i­ly portable and long-last­ing plat­form,” explains Pardee, “we’ve cre­at­ed a flex­i­ble tool that brings med­ica­tion pro­duc­tion out­side of the lab, which has incred­i­ble poten­tial for glob­al health and per­son­al­ized med­i­cine.”

To read the paper, please vis­it–6.

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For more infor­ma­tion and to arrange inter­views, please con­tact:

Jef Ekins
Man­ag­er, Mar­ket­ing & Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
Leslie Dan Fac­ul­ty of Phar­ma­cy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to