Small and flexible: the manufacturing of tomorrow

pharmafile | March 24, 2009 | News story | Manufacturing and Production biologics 

Biopharmaceutical manufacturing is likely to undergo a dramatic change over the next 20 years, with the today's facilities facing dramatic change or obsolescence.

That was one of the main take-home messages from a panel discussion at the Interphex show in New York last week.

A recurrent theme was the fundamental changes that the shift towards personalised medicine – in which medicines are developed to address a molecular mutation, rather than a disease phenotype – will have on biomanufacturing.

Venture capitalist Steven Burrill said that companies will have to expect to make just $100-$200 million from a product and not the $1-2 billion they've enjoyed in the past.

"That is causing a shift from large to small volume compounds, and facilities have to adapt to suit," according to Divakar Ramakrishnan, executive director of manufacturing science and technology at Eli Lilly.

With declining patient populations per product the industry will not be able to make use of existing plants effectively.

"What is needed are multifunctional facilities – like pilot plants – with greater use of technologies such as disposables to increase flexibility," said Ramakrishnan.

The use of disposable components would mean production lines could be switched much more readily from one product to another. This would reduce the need for cleaning and sterilising steps, as well as the risk of cross-contamination.

"I foresee aggressive leveraging of external partners, for example to specialised manufacturers," continued Ramakrishnan.

Too expensive to make?

That completely changes the manufacturing paradigm, but also raises some important questions, according to Michael Kowolenko, senior vice president of technical operations and product supply of Wyeth's BioTech Operating Unit.

Faced with a dwindling patient population for a product and limited revenue potential, "in the future, it is possible that a company could have a drug that it simply could not afford to make," pointed out Kowolenko.

Even now, Burrill said, only a third of drugs placed onto the market ever recoup their development costs, so companies will be walking a thin tightrope between making drugs that are financially viable and drugs which are too niche to ever make a realistic return on investment.

That said, innovation and technological advancements could solve the problem, according to Kowolenko. Only a few years ago it was typical to get product titres of just 500mg/l from a bioreactor, now the processes have refined to hike that to 10g/litre. Other advances may well emerge to help prevent the need for capital spend on new facilities, he suggested.

"Those companies that can adopt innovative, dynamic manufacturing that can bring drugs faster to the clinic and to the market will have the competitive advantage," predicted Kowolenko.

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