Novo Nordisk Foundation puts up €100M for green manufacturing

Editor's note: This story was updated to show DTU Biosustain would not directly supply cell factories to drug companies.

Some pharmas may be offsetting their carbon footprints, but few are actively using green alternatives to make their drugs. The Novo Nordisk Foundation aims to change that with an investment in sustainability research that could boost green manufacturing in Denmark and beyond.

The foundation pledged €100 million ($112 million) in funding for Biosustain, a research center at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) that pioneers renewable alternatives to drugs, consumer goods and other products typically made from fossil fuels or rare plant materials.

Of particular interest to the Novo foundation are DTU’s cell factories—model organisms like E. coli, yeast or mammalian cells genetically rewired to churn out sought-after molecules. Those cell factories can then be optimized to produce pharmaceuticals, chemical ingredients and even fermented foods.

The five-year funding deal could help Biosustain researchers push the limits of biotech—a key player in the coming switch to green products and production methods, said Lars Rebien Sørensen, the foundation's chairman and former Novo Nordisk CEO. The research center is already plugging away at cell factories in yeast to produce raw ingredients for heart drugs, along with other bacteria-based factories that can make antibiotics like kirromycin.

Plus, DTU researchers are parsing those same factories to discover new drugs, too. Looking ahead, DTU says it will expand those pharmaceutical applications to include anti-cancer and antiviral compounds.

To sift through all those complex cell structures, DTU will tap big data and use the grant money to establish a so-called “biofoundry,” where it aims to complete large-scale analysis and design of its cell factories. That new facility will rely on genome-scale analysis and robotics to parse the large data sets needed to track and decode cells’ biological systems.

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So when can drugmakers expect to get their hands on drugs from these cell factories? It’s in the cards, but it could take a while; that said, the cost-saving potential could be worth the wait.

“Due to the long product development cycles for pharmaceutical products, many of these approaches are not yet used in production—but we clearly expect this to change,” DTU bioinformatics expert professor Tilmann Weber said via email. “Based on the 'molecular' approaches we are using, we aim [to] drastically reduce the costs of generating commercially relevant amounts of these complex drugs [and] drug precursors.”

Given that Novo Nordisk, Novozymes and a host of other biopharmas already use bio-based technologies to develop certain active pharmaceutical compounds, it stands to reason that DTU's cell factory research could creep its way into industry pipelines—a development in step with DTU's broader goal to deliver its renewable know-how to the biotech industry. 

Beyond the pharmaceutical realm, DTU aims to leverage its cell factories to create renewable food sources and chemical ingredients for other consumer products like cosmetics. The research center is also developing environmentally friendly pesticides and other agrochemicals.

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Meanwhile, Novo Nordisk itself has picked up the sustainability torch in manufacturing, albeit with broader changes to its sites. This year, the company will switch to solar power at its U.S. production facilities, and on the whole, the company is shooting for zero carbon emissions from its global operations by 2030.

And outside the Novo Group, AstraZeneca made a push to reduce its environmental impact earlier this year, pledging $1 billion to go carbon-free by 2025, while Takeda CEO Christophe Weber said the company aims to be carbon neutral in 2020 through 4.5 million tons of carbon offsets.

In the meantime, DTU Biosustain knows it can't drive development on its own. It's putting itself out there in the hopes that other research centers and industrial partners will sign on to expand the network of green biotech on a global scale.