Sanofi's Genzyme looking hard at continuous manufacturing

With cost pressures weighing heavily on drugmakers, most are looking for ways to do more with less. In manufacturing that often means cutting jobs and closing plants. But Genzyme, the biotech subsidiary of Sanofi ($SNY), is experimenting with continuous processing, a new manufacturing approach that potentially can shave time, space and equipment costs by eliminating the batch approach to production.

"There's a race going on," Konstantin Konstantinov, Genzyme's vice president for late-stage product development, tells MIT Technology Review. MIT researchers have been at the forefront of developing the technology. "We're trying to come up with the dominant design."

The standard process of making biologics from animal or bacterial cells is time-consuming and expensive. Changes in production volumes are slow and tedious. It requires huge bioreactor capacity to end up with a sufficient amount of product.  Konstantinov tells MIT Technology Review that his team has been able to link a smaller bioreactor to a type of chromatograph to continuously separate protein from the surrounding liquid. The innovation, which has been running for several months, needs about half the usual equipment. Instead of needing a football field sized space, it can be compressed into something approximating the size of a squash court, the publication reports.

Konstantinov thinks his team has broken through the technical barriers and now it is a question of whether the company would want to start down a road that has yet to be trod and for which there is no existing large-scale supply structure. Still, he sees great possibilities for the industry. "We're pushing this very hard," he says.

Other companies also are evaluating continuous processing. In fact MIT's research is done at something called the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing, born of a $65 million collaboration between the university and the Swiss drugmaker. Other companies are looking at other processes to make manufacturing faster and more efficient.

The MIT publication points out that last year during a lecture, Amgen ($AMGN) CEO Robert Bradway said his company was "on the cusp of a major change in how we manufacture proteins." The company, however, remains mum about what that change will be and when it might be seen.

- here's the MIT Technology Review piece