Instead of trying to transport and store delicate, heat-sensitive drugs in developing countries, where you could have trouble finding electricity let alone refrigeration, smart researchers have come up with a way to make « dehydrated » drugs, so they can be rebuilt on-the-spot, just by adding water.
The team, out of the University of Toronto and Harvard University, didn’t just leave drugs out in the sun to dry. The process is not really dehydration at all. Instead, it puts all the parts needed to make a drug into two kinds of freeze-dried pellets. One contains a paper-based synthetic gene network, essentially a way to encode synthetic DNA on paper. The other contains « cell-free transcription and translation machinery. » In synthetic biology, this kind of machine uses things like proteins and genes to make circuits that can be programmed to do specific operations, just like a computer circuit.
Using these pellets, the manufacturing of drugs and vaccines can be moved to the front line. You can’t just toss the pellets into a Tupperware and slosh in some Evian, but the principle is the same, and it means that the drugs can be made on-demand and on-site, with no need for a long chain of refrigerated storage stretching back to the drug factory.
In tests, these portable vaccines, antibodies, and drugs worked as well as their traditionally made counterparts. The researchers synthesized and delivered diphtheria vaccine into mice, for example, and they went on to produce their own antibodies and remained healthy while doing it, just as with a regular vaccine.
The cost is comparable to making drugs back at the lab. For instance, a dose of DTaP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) cost around $18. The Center for Disease Control price for the same dose is $16.73. That’s not bad for these early stages, and the prices are likely to drop over time.
But the real savings are in the dismantling of that refrigerated chain. « Of note, » says the report, « besides the direct cost per dose, the expense of cold-chain distribution can account for 80% of a vaccine’s cost. » These drugs are much better suited to the environment in which they will be used, which makes it more likely that they’ll get where they need to be, and be available when they’re needed.