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rug companies are hard at work trying to speed up drug manufacturing on a large scale. But engineers in Cambridge, Mass., are going smaller and betting that it may be equally useful.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology team has developed a fridge-sized machine, called Pharmacy on Demand, that can make hundreds to thousands of doses of a medicine a day. Such a system may be useful, for instance, after a natural disaster or for orphan drugs, said MIT chemical engineer Allan Myerson, “when very little is needed but nobody wants to make it.”

So far, the team has made generic versions of Benadryl (an antihistamine), Prozac (antidepressant), Valium (antianxiety), and lidocaine (anesthetic). The machine currently only produces liquid drugs but researchers say 3-D printing could someday allow pills to be made, as well.

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“The device is portable, so you can make drugs anywhere, or put it on a plane and ship it anywhere,” said lead engineer Andrea Adamo.

Making medicines is currently a delicate process that precludes a continuous, assembly line setup. Instead, drugs are usually produced a batch at a time, like chocolate chip cookies at a bakery. Active ingredients are synthesized in various places, brought to the pharmaceutical plant, and mixed to produce a finite number of pills. That process can contribute to drug shortages as demand ebbs and flows.

The Pharmacy on Demand project, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), instead wanted to design a device to make medicines in a continuous stream. Their machine can be reconfigured within a couple hours to change the output, thanks to various modules of ingredients, pumps, reactors, and heating elements. The results were published Thursday in Science.

Rainer Martin, a senior principal scientist at Switzerland’s Roche Innovation Center, wrote an accompanying editorial, cautioned that the system is still in a proof-of-concept stage. But, he said, “they are getting there. This is a cutting-edge piece of work.”

Right now, however, the team’s goal is to continue perfecting their device. And on size, they’re thinking smaller still: “We’re currently working on making it 40 percent smaller,” said Myerson.

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