Designing future medicines – the work of the chemical engineer (Day 192)

Pills packI, like the rest of the world, have been saddened by the devastation caused by the most recent Ebola outbreak in Africa and its wide-reaching consequences.

Unfortunately, there have been many ‘finger-waving’ stories questioning how it can have taken so long for the major pharmaceutical companies to produce a viable treatment or vaccine for the disease.

Sadly, ‘finger-waving’ isn’t the answer when the solutions are complicated and highly regulated.

Sometimes, the media report on the latest breakthroughs. For example, Time recently reported ‘Scientists Develop Drug to Replace Antibiotics’.

This implies that these drugs are available and ready to go, however this distracts us from the fact the article also states ‘researchers hope to create a pill or an injectable version of it in the next five years’.

Anyone who has worked in research will understand how long it actually takes to move these breakthroughs to the next stage and to truly develop them.

IChemE technical vice-president, Jon-Paul Sherlock, has worked in the pharmaceuticals industry for over 15 years and has offered me a brief insight into what the industry is really like for chemical engineers.

Scaling-up the manufacture of medicines means designing processes that increase output from milligrams to kilograms. Anyone who enjoys cooking for dinner parties will see the problem here; handling larger quantities of ingredients, the time required to cook the meal and ensuring everything is in the right place at the right time, all become more difficult

Pharmaceuticals laboratory
Pharmaceuticals laboratory

Additionally, the making of a medicine unlike cookery, involves the use of flammable, toxic, corrosive and volatile chemicals and solving the mysteries of particle or biochemical science. Designing the processes and technology that allow scale-up is a serious and time consuming business.

In the pharmaceuticals industry designing, developing and understanding future medicines and the processes to make them at scale is the work of the chemical engineer working alongside other scientists.

Jon-Paul points out that the unique characteristics of the pharmaceuticals industry are: attrition (only a small percentage of research and development work goes on to be commercialised); regulation (the industry is highly regulated to ensure product safety); and the product (rather than being a medicine is instead – a safe, efficacious, differentiated clinical outcome).

The focus of the pharmaceuticals industry is on meeting customer needs but ensuring product safety and effectiveness.

Jon-Paul Sherlock, IChemE Technical vice-president
Jon-Paul Sherlock

Jon-Paul recognises that the truly innovative areas for growth in the industry are; growing and ageing populations, increasingly affluent emerging markets and technological advances.

There are very few ‘easy’ targets for new medicines and rising requirements of the regulators and consumers make it more difficult. However, the industry is innovating and breakthrough therapies are being accelerated. The new challenge is how can we do what we used to do more cheaply and faster, whilst improving the quality and capability of our processes

So next time you see a news story proclaiming the next breakthrough in drug research think – how long until this product comes to market? Have chemical engineers been involved yet?

The Ebola outbreak has now lead to drug trials being carried out in situ, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) announcing that treatments and vaccines for Ebola should be fast-tracked.

However, there are some concerns about the safety of doing this in additional to the ethical issues of giving desperate people trial medicines. It is expected that the results of these trials will be available from February 2015.

Wellbeing puzzle pieceChemical engineers working in the pharmaceuticals industry are crucial in making the drugs we rely on to everyday, as well as scaling-up the production new medicines to fight devastating diseases like Ebola. This proves just how much chemical engineering matters.

One thought on “Designing future medicines – the work of the chemical engineer (Day 192)”

  1. Chemical engineers make a massive input into the pharmaceutical industry as the activies of the IChemE’s Pharma Special Interest Group illustrates.


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