Photograph of an operational InSCyT system

A protein-based drug is made in a reaction vessel (silver box, left) before passing over columns of purifying chemicals (slender white cylinders, middle). Credit: L. E. Crowell et al./Nat. Biotechnol.

Medical research

This miniature drug factory fits on a few lab benches

Automated system takes only 80 hours to turn out hundreds of doses of a medical product made by living organisms.

An all-in-one bench-top system can churn out hundreds or thousands of doses of a medically useful protein in a few days — and can easily switch to manufacturing other proteins.

Biologic drugs, or biologics, are medical products such as vaccines that are produced by living organisms. Biologics could potentially serve as personalized treatments, but today’s large-scale drug production facilities cannot efficiently manufacture personalized biologics.

To address this, Christopher Love at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and his colleagues designed a compact, automated system that, unlike other designs, links all the steps of biologic assembly. In the new system, yeast rapidly produces a protein in bulk. A purification system then separates the molecule from its biological source without chemically altering the protein. Finally, the protein is combined with other ingredients into the final product.

The researchers produced medically functional amounts of three protein biologics, including human growth hormone for treatment of growth deficiencies. The system can also be expanded to make biologics, such as insulin, that are more difficult to manufacture than those the system has already made.