Home-made pharmaceuticals may be possible in the near future

By Melissa Fassbender

- Last updated on GMT

Farma: a home bioreactor for pharmaceutical drugs. Image: Will Patrick
Farma: a home bioreactor for pharmaceutical drugs. Image: Will Patrick

Related tags Biotechnology

A homebrew engineer is raising society and ethical questions after designing an at-home bioreactor for pharmaceutical drugs.

During a residency at Autodesk, Will Patrick, a MIT Media Lab graduate, focused his work on the societal and ethical implications of recent genetic engineering technology. One of his latest projects, Farma, was inspired by several recent papers demonstrating opiate synthesis in yeast – and has several such implications.

Specifically, Patrick was inspired by a paper published by Christina Smolke’s lab at Stanford which demonstrated the full metabolic pathway, from glucose to opioid, in yeast. Dr. Smolke and her students have since created a startup to commercialize the technology, presumably to begin mass-producing opiates in yeast as a cheaper alternative to current methods.

Alternatively, I wanted to explore how it could be possible to commercialize this type of research by using the engineered organisms for engineered drug production​,” says Patrick.

The result of this exploration is Farma: a bioreactor that brews pharmaceutical drugs at home.

Home-made pharmaceuticals

Talking with Patrick, he presents a future scenario in which users could order a specific Spirulina strain (a cyanobacterium) that produces the drug of their choice. They would then receive a starter culture in the mail and add its supplied nutrients and water in the bioreactor.

Farma senses growth of the culture and after some period of time begins to harvest the Spirulina by pumping the culture through a filter​,” explains Patrick. “The user then can fill gel caps with the filtered Spirulina with the accompanying pill making device or consume the Spirulina directly by adding it to a drink​.”

In each case, the drug is contained within the cells of the Spirulina; thus, as the user consumes the Spirulina, they also consume the drug.

Yet, what Patrick explains is still hypothetical. “Currently, the device brews unmodified Spirulina. The bioreactor maintains the conditions for Spirulina growth: 30 degree Celsius media, aeration, and a 12 hr artificial day/light cycle​.” And maintaining these conditions was the biggest design challenge in developing the bioreactor.

For example, I needed several electrical components (a heater, LED lights, a thermometer) to interface with the Spirulina in the reactor without exposing the electrical components to the fluid​,” explains Patrick.

Undoubtedly, future iterations will come with a new set of challenges. Today, however, Farma could be used to produce Spirulina at home, and in the near future, Patrick imagines that the device could be used to brew Spirulina designed to produce vitamins and other supplements. He’s also considered a “few less controversial use cases,” such as bioluminescent bacteria to create a lamp, as well as yeast engineered to produce fragrances.

Distributed production of pharmaceutical drugs

As far as the distributed production of pharmaceutical drugs, Patrick can see a couple of possibilities. The first, which he has demonstrated with Farma, is the design and distribution of synthetic microbes by a commercial company.

I imagine this scenario to be similar to a Keurig coffee maker,” he explains. “The consumer buys the machine and then orders the specifically designed Spirulina strain required for their drug. They then brew it and begin consuming the drug​.”

In this scenario the company designs and sells the bioreactor, the organisms, and the nutrients to the consumer. Patrick adds that the company “may even place sensors in the machine and receive ongoing feedback to ensure quality and improve upon their brewing process​.”

Patrick’s second scenario is a DIY-BIO open source movement in which individuals design and share their own bioreactors, organisms, and media. This movement would be made possible by the reduced costs of lab equipment and synthesized DNA, which has increased the accessibility of genetic engineering to homebrew engineers, like Patrick.

Similar to software, there’s a potential upside that individuals share their designs for the benefit of the broader community​,” adds Patrick. “However, there’s obviously a possible ​Breaking Bad scenario where people are brewing and distributing narcotics​.”

According to Patrick, both of these possible could play out within the next decade.

Continuing the conversation

Since publishing his ideas for Farma online, Patrick has received varied reactions. His response: “It’s great! I hope the project provokes strong and varied reactions​.”

However, there are still many tough questions to answer as genetic engineering technology continues to advance, and Farma is complicating the conversation – one which dates back to wheat and dogs and a continuing desire to control biology to serve our needs.

The big differences now are speed (what may have taken several hundred years to alter in Mesopotamia may now take minutes in a modern biolab), and breadth (re-mixing and splicing genes from across the phylogenetic tree),​” explains Patrick. “For good or bad, the domestication of wheat (and other plants) in Mesopotamia changed human life from a nomadic existence living in bands of 100 to 150 people to ploughing land, settling communities, and worshiping Gods​.”

With history as a guide, Patrick thinks it’s reasonable to expect modern genetic tools to be used in a similar fashion as ancient ones – as a way to efficiently produce food, energy, and materials, and maybe someday, pharmaceuticals.

It’s hard to predict how the tools will change our culture, just as the first wheat farmer could not predict the advent of laws, writing and moralizing gods​,” he admits. “However, unlike our ancestors, I hope we can at least have a discussion about the tools we’re creating, assess their effect on culture, and alter course in the case of unexpected negative effects​.”

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