This “Just Add Water” Chemistry Kit Can Create On-Demand Drugs And Vaccines

To help save this world and the next

As humans explore the furthest edges of our own planet and others, the old ways of developing drugs won’t work forever. Spending years creating a drug, testing it, manufacturing massive amounts of it, and then moving the temperature-sensitive medication over hundreds of miles is agonizingly cumbersome. 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.

A mock portable kit for on-the-go medicine manufacturing
A mock portable kit that could carry vaccines, antimicrobial peptides and antibody conjugates, without power or refrigeration, for use in the field anywhere in the world. Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“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.

injection of medication via syringe
Injection is one of the various ways the Wyss Institute team envisions their “just add water” method working, as they demonstrate here. The compounds could be administered orally and via topical application, as well. Wyss Institute at Harvard University
mock demonstration of "just add water" chemistry kit
This mock demonstration by Wyss Institute researchers shows how rehydrating freeze-dried components with water activates the biomolecular manufacturing process. Wyss Institute at Harvard University

This work builds on several years of projects involving paper-based diagnostic tools. This time, they realized they could freeze-dry the genetic instruction manuals contained inside cells, without the paper. They began exploring how it could apply to other materials, including plastic, quartz, and cloth. “We’re looking to see if you could embody this in, for example, a smart bandage,” Collins says. “Could you engineer a bandage that would use these freeze-dried components? Both to make proteins to aid the wound healing, but also have encoded elements that’d be diagnostic in nature. It’d indicate if there’s an infection at the site of the wound, and if it’s a resistant infection.”

The Wyss Institute team isn’t alone in this goal: Other MIT researchers are developing tiny pharmaceutical factories that use genetically engineered yeast cells. “The greatest barriers to access and improved health are not drug prices or patents but ‘on the ground’ barriers such as market failure, corruption, nonexistent health human resources and infrastructure, and the lack of both local and international political will,” executive director of the Cameron Institute Dr. D. Wayne Taylor writes in a 2010 study on industry access to developing countries. Researchers like Collins are trying to push the cost, efficiency, and simplicity of drug manufacturing to beat that clock.

Even as they’re working to solve the life-or-death waiting game that doctors in less accessible areas here on Earth face, Collins mentions that they’re looking up and forward: Astronauts might feasibly pack these kits on trips to Mars. There’s not much bacteria to be found in space, but humans are full of them. In the case of an infected scrape or pneumonia 140 million miles from the nearest drug store, this kit could help save the red world.