When a community in a remote region is devastated by a Zika outbreak, slow and expensive solutions can cost lives. With the populations of the world’s least-developed countries projected to double by 2050, getting medication to remote areas is of growing interest to doctors and scientists.
Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering are working on a system that could allow for inexpensive, rapid manufacturing of drugs in the field, as they’re needed. Their goal is to reduce much of the traditional supply chain to a process even a child could use for science experiments, and inexpensive enough for a hiker to pack in a first aid kit.
“At the heart of the technique, we take cell-free extracts — that is, you can open up a living cell and remove its machinery, which would consist, in this case, of a few dozen enzymes, DNA, RNA,” Wyss Institute Core Faculty member James Collins told Popular Science, “and show that you can freeze dry those cell-free extracts as pellets.” The dried pellets manufactured off-site and waiting to be added to a kit can be stored at room temperature in mix-and-match combinations, depending on what you’ll need to make. Need an antibiotic, or an antimicrobial peptide to treat a wound? Just add water and the compound functions as if it’s in a living cell, and can be injected (after filtering out the bits you don’t want entering your bloodstream), applied topically, or taken orally, depending on what’s ailing you.
The entire compact kit can be kept in a small first aid bag, or packed with many vials of freeze-dried cell machinery for a larger briefcase that can be thrown into the back of a truck for doctors in the field. For their study, published in Cell last month, the team created those bacterial infection-fighting antimicrobial peptides, as well as a diphtheria vaccine.