The MIT researchers managed to develop a portable drug factory that is able to produce two types of different medicines while being cost-effective. The team of scientists received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The device can produce a single dose of treatment by using a droplet of cells in liquid. Its portability would ensure its use on the battlefield, as it could provide the cure at the point of care.
Another application would be the creation of a vaccine that can stop a disease outbreak in a remote location.
The Portable Drug Factory
The senior author of the study published in Nature journal explained that in a desert, or on Mars, it would be infinitely valuable to program cells into producing drugs.
The device relies on programmable yeast. Pichia pastoris can produce two therapeutic proteins on demand. The bacterium in question is able to express large amounts of protein, and it only needs inexpensive and simple carbon sources.
The yeast was modified so it could be more genetically flexible and be used in a variety of diseases.
The experimental device involves the combination of yeast with estrogen β-estradiol, which produces human growth hormone. When exposed to methanol, the cells create protein interferon.
The portable drug factory includes a reactor where the yeast gets combined with the chemical. The space has four rooms, out of which one contains a silicone rubber membrane. When the researchers apply pressure to the gas above the membrane, the substances inside the reactor get mixed together.
As the total quantity of ingredients is of just one milliliter of liquid, it was critical to find an efficient way to keep the substance homogenous.
The mix is monitored through a microfluidic chip which indicates the pH, the temperature, and the oxygen levels to ensure the environment is proper for cell growth.
A second filter can draw the liquid, leaving the cells available for a new mix.
Other microbioreactors missed the ability to retain the yeast when eliminating the fluid. The new device manages to change the chemical environment while preserving the bacterium for a new trial.
The next steps of the project will include antibodies and the combination of multiple substances. The researchers estimate that mixing more than two ingredients could make the cost of the device increase. In order to avoid making separate production lines for each drug, the team will try to engineer single strains or a consortia.
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