Drug shortages have plagued the health care system 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.
More important, research shows shortages lead to adverse patient outcomes — things like delaying critical procedures, rationing doses based on supply levels and prescribing suboptimal treatment plans with substitute drugs.
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 University and Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp., a solution may be on the horizon.
Led by Dr. Yue “Sophie” Wang, the ambitious project combines robotics and medicine to ensure sterility, quality, safety and efficiency in pharmaceutical manufacturing. The 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 at Clemson University. “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, a cGMP manufacturer providing sterile, prefilled medications to address persistent drug shortages in hospitals and medical facilities across America. Without robotics, filling these syringes is a delicate, highly regulated process completed by specialized technicians under laminar airflow hoods in ISO-classified clean rooms to keep their work environments sterile.
Technicians can then be redeployed for higher-value functions that let them improve their skills, experience and pay, said Nephron CEO Lou Kennedy.
“Anything we can do to improve drug shortages, that’s just good for patients,” she added. “It’s a very big crisis, not just in the U.S. but globally as well.”
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.
Based in West Columbia, Nephron is a certified woman-owned business and one of the fastest-growing companies in South Carolina. The partnership was developed through External Affairs’ Office of Corporate Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives at Clemson University.
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