Making pharmaceuticals is a labor intensive job, so more than 70% of the medications Americans take are coming from China and India, where labor costs are low.
Now, however, Virginia Commonwealth University has set out to bring the process home.
When President Trump started a trade war with China, some experts got nervous. That country has subsidized its pharmaceutical industry, and much of the world now depends on the Chinese according to VCU Professor Frank Gupton.
"There was a concern on the part of the government that the Chinese might hold our healthcare hostage as leverage against these tariffs," he recalls.
Then the COVID pandemic hit, underscoring our vulnerability. At Virginia Commonwealth’s Medicines for All Institute, Gupton was ready. He had started a partnership with a private pharmaceutical firm called PHLOW and a consortium of 15-hundred American hospitals to make all of the components of critical medications at a 300-acre site in Petersburg.
“A manufacturing facility makes the starting materials, the active ingredients, the formulated product at a single site,” he explains.
And last week they got a boost – a $354 million grant from the federal government to begin making medications in a whole new way.
“We would like to move toward a more continuous manufacturing platform, which is highly automated, and through the automation should significantly reduce the labor costs.”
We asked Gupton to explain how, exactly, this new process would work.
“The best example I can give you is making spaghetti,” he replies.
That’s right – spaghetti. In Asia, he says, medications are made in batches.
“And that’s like making spaghetti sauce. You take all the starting materials, you put them in a pot, you heat them up, you cool it down and you dump it out.”
All that chopping and stirring takes time, and each time the end product is a little different. To be more efficient and consistent, Gupton wants to make drugs the way big companies make pasta.
“Where you continuously feed the starting materials and you continuously take the product out. Each batch of spaghetti sauce tastes a little bit different, but all the pasta tastes the same.”
This proposed innovation did not surprise Dr. Barbara D. Boyan – Dean of VCU’s College of Engineering.
“That is what engineers do really well is they problem solve," she says. "It’s not unique to them, but it is their specialty is to take a problem and deconstruct it down to its component parts, and then rebuild it back into something that’s useful.”
And Gupton has proven a pioneer in the past – as a member of the National Academy of Inventors and the winner of several green chemistry awards. It turns out the process Gupton designed is also less wasteful and promises to protect the nation from future drug shortages.
“The goal is to have something similar to the strategic oil reserve where we will be able to store the active ingredients in a large warehouse down in Petersburg that can be immediately converted into finished dosage products in the event that we have a COVID-like experience in the future.”
Last but not least, he predicts this initiative will create about 350 high-paying jobs and help jump start Virginia’s lagging economy.