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Idealog—in the ideas business

Cleaner, greener drug production in the works

A Wellington PhD student's recent discovery could revolutionise the way pharmaceutical companies make drugs.

Dr Emma Dangerfield, from Victoria University, created a formula that shuns petrochemicals and instead uses organic bases like water and ethanol as a solvent.

Drug manufacturing traditionally involves the use of toxic organic solvents and petrochemicals, a process that results in around 240,000 tonnes of potentially harmful waste having to be disposed of each year.

Drug companies see the petrochemical process as a “necessary evil”, says Dangerfield.

“They say, ‘err, annoying, but oh well,’ for pharmaceutical companies, they don’t waste time or money on these types of technologies, their aim is elsewhere.”

The recent graduate says it is up to fundamental research such as hers to contest industry norms and provide tools so that pharmaceuticals can be made eco-friendlier.

“I have really enjoyed chemistry from a young age, but I wanted to challenge the way we traditionally do research and how chemistry is, in our everyday lives.”

Her patented process allows drug molecules to be made in five to eight steps, around half the usual number. 

This again helps the greening of the drug making process.

“The shorter the process the less waste produced,” she explains.

The efficiency gains are hoped to help the commercialisation of the technology, which is still in its infancy.

Dr Dangerfield’s work was as part of a joint project between Victoria University and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.

The Malaghan Institute is a medical research institute focused on finding cures for cancer, asthma and allergy, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and infectious diseases.

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