In impoverished or secluded areas, getting medicine fast isn’t always possible. But with a new device developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, medical professionals may be able to create pharmaceuticals on demand, all with the help of a shoebox-sized laboratory.
The portable system, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, uses a “programmable strain of yeast” to theoretically grow any protein-based drug, according to a release from MIT. And it can happen in less than 24 hours.
“If you’re in a third world country or you happen to be on a ship for the military and you don’t have that drug, we imagine that [with this device] … you can produce those drugs on demand locally,” said Tim Lu, senior author of a paper published in Nature Communications about the device on July 29.
“You can actually engineer the yeast to produce drugs in a short period of time,” he added.
Inside the device, a liquid with “the desired chemical trigger” is fed into the reactor, where it mixes with cells. The mixture is stored within the four-sided device, three sides of which are polycarbonate and one side of which is made of a flexible and gas-permeable silicone rubber membrane,” the release said.
Researchers massage the droplet to make sure it is properly mixed together, and the conditions of the mixture are monitored within the device through a “microfluidic” chip.
Lu, who is also head of the Synthetic Biology Group at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and an engineering professor at the university, said the goal was to “engineer a portable system with a small footprint.”
Transporting treatment sites can often be expensive and time-consuming, Lu said, so the new system is an alternative to providing vaccines and treatments to communities without resources to create their own.
“Everything you bring with you costs a lot of money. If you can imagine bringing a device like this that actually contains a yeast that contains different types of drugs,” he said, “you can make this on demand and replicate [it] when you need it.”
The device can do more than just produce and replicate drugs, though, Lu said. The new portable system allows researchers to alter drugs and test the way they help or hurt people in different areas of the world.
Because geography often plays a role in the way diseases form and spread, having an easy, portable way to treat those diseases is invaluable, Lu said.
“If there’s a disease like malaria or related viral diseases in which there’s a lot of geographical variation, you can use this platform to customize your therapy,” he said.
Through the team’s latest research, Lu said, he hopes researchers will be able to expand their pharmaceutical solutions, thinking outside the box when it comes to global public health.
“If you could engineer a single strain, or maybe even a consortia of strains that grow together, to manufacture combinations of biologics or antibodies,” he said, “that could be a very powerful way of producing these drugs at a reasonable cost.”
Felicia Gans is an editorial intern at MedTech Boston. She will be a senior this fall at Boston University, where she is studying journalism, political science, and computer science. When she's not working, Felicia loves drinking coffee, jamming out to Broadway music, and reading the news.
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