Drug shortages have plagued health care for decades. Even prior to COVID-19, hospitals incurred more than $400 million in labor costs and alternative treatment options due to national generic drug shortages, especially for those administered via injection.
And research shows shortages lead to things like delaying critical procedures, rationing doses based on supply levels and prescribing suboptimal treatment plans with substitute drugs — resulting in adverse patient outcomes.
Manufacturing tops the list as the most common cause of shortages, pushing those in the pharmaceutical supply chain to look for new ways to increase productivity — and thanks to a partnership between Clemson and Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corporation, a solution may be on the horizon.
Led by Associate Professor Yue “Sophie” Wang, the project combines robotics and medicine to ensure sterility, quality, safety and efficiency in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Her team worked in partnership with South Carolina-based Nephron to develop a flexible, easy to use, open-source benchtop robot that can fill, cap and seal sterile syringes.
“Pharmaceutical collaborative robots is a new and quickly growing research area,” said Wang, who serves as the Warren H. Owen Duke Energy Associate Professor of Engineering. “By combining our expertise with unique applications in pharmaceutical manufacturing, we hope to benefit both patients and the industry through increased efficiency in syringe manufacturing.”
The project supports the Nephron 503B Outsourcing Facility, which provides sterile, pre-filled medications to hospitals and medical facilities across America. Pre-filled syringes help control costs by minimizing drug overfill and minimizing microbial contamination.
“Anything we can do to improve drug shortages, that’s just good for patients,” said Nephron CEO Lou Kennedy. “It’s a very big crisis, not just in the U.S. but globally as well.”
The partnership was developed through Clemson’s Office of Corporate Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives. The next phase of the project is further development, starting with the completion of a purpose-built clean room on Clemson’s campus. Kennedy hopes to commercialize the benchtop system for use inside health care facilities across the country.
Clemson and Nephron are at the forefront of a larger trend shaping pharmaceutical manufacturing today. The integration of automation, AI and robotics is catalyzing the industry, and rising demand paired with major market disruptions, such as COVID-19, are only accelerating change. The pharmaceutical robotic systems market is expected to nearly double to $119.46 million from just five years ago, driven by innovations in packaging, inspection and lab work, according to one report.
Part of what has made the project successful is the complementary strengths Nephron and Clemson have brought to the table. Wang needed an insider’s perspective on pharmaceutical manufacturing to understand the exact requirements and processes involved in sterile syringe production. In addition to Clemson’s research talent, Nephron was also drawn to the steady stream of talented graduates who could hit the ground running at their facilities.