What’s the deal with drug waste?

What’s happening? University of Bath researchers have created a more sustainable method to develop pharmaceuticals. Currently, synthesising small-molecule drugs involves several stages, with every 1 kg of drug producing an estimated 100 kg of waste. The novel method synthesises primary amines, used in over half of all drug products. A catalyst is activated by blue light, which speeds up reactions with less energy and waste. (University of Bath – press release, Journal of the American Chemical Society)

Why does this matter? The alarming quantity of waste created when making drugs is generated mostly by solvents used during the synthesis process. Many of these leftovers are toxic, meaning disposing of them safely is expensive and difficult, and often they are incinerated.

The University of Bath’s method reduces synthesis to just a single step, which has the potential to dramatically lower waste should it become used for bulk manufacturing. Indeed, the research team are working with several pharmaceutical companies to scale up the technology. In the meantime, they suggest it could be used to hasten drug discovery and development. Reducing waste at this stage needs consideration and other avenues such as drug repurposing could exclude it altogether.

Tackling life-cycle waste – Pharmaceutical waste doesn’t stop at the end of the manufacturing process – it’s a feature of an entire product life cycle. There are packaging issues, but also once a product meets the end-user often not all of it is needed. This leaves health care facilities or individuals with the responsibility of safely disposing of unused drugs.

People taking medication at home may not be aware of how they should discard these products, so greater patient awareness of take-back schemes would help reduce waste coming from this source. Another alternative would be to investigate the feasibility and safety of re-prescribing unused medicines to other patients. A more difficult problem to navigate is drugs entering the environment due to body waste, which needs addressing from a wider angle.

Power struggle – It’s also important to note manufacturing facilities require a large amount of energy for drug production, needed for activities including temperature control, ventilation and cleaning. A recent McMaster University study noted that the global pharmaceutical industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, even greater than the automotive sector in terms of emissions per dollar of revenue. Vast amounts of water are also needed, which if not treated effectively can pose a threat to the environment and, like with human waste, even contribute to the spread of antimicrobial resistance.

Medicine miles – It’s worth noting that the majority of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) used in drugs are produced in Asian countries, with China being the dominant player. Aside from potential supply chain issues, this also means that these products must travel around the world – adding to the emissions problem. A European survey conducted by Teva highlighted this issue, with over half of respondents agreeing that domestic production would reduce this problem. A further 35% said they felt this would also be greener and more respectful to environmental regulations than APIs developed overseas.

What are the solutions? Big Pharma is not ignoring these issues. For example, Biogen has committed to eliminate all fossil fuel emissions, including the establishment of green chemistry targets to reduce the environmental impact in drug development. Novo Nordisk‘s Circular for Zero strategy not only aims to eliminate its environmental impact, but also eradicate waste and continuously recycle its resources. This includes the take-back of insulin pens from patients so their components can be reused in products as diverse as chairs and lamps.

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