With cues from nature, scientists develop new method to purify drugs

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Using what might be described as a biological machine, University of Florida and Finnish researchers have demonstrated an experimental process for drug purification that one day could speed the production and decrease the cost of prescription drugs.

The researchers created antibodies that recognized and attached to a cancer-fighting drug molecule. They installed the antibodies in almost unimaginably small silica tubes, known as nanotubes, arranged in a membrane. In an experiment reported Friday in an article in the journal Science, the "smart membrane" transmitted the drug molecule far faster than other molecules in a mixture.

"What's new here is that we chemists have borrowed a couple of pages from the natural world to demonstrate the potential for a new approach for purifying drugs," said Charles Martin, a UF professor of chemistry and the lead author of the article.

Drug makers use several techniques to make antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and other widely used pharmaceuticals. A common method is to nurture and grow bacteria that produce the desired drug molecule in a mixture. The hitch is this mixture also may contain tens or hundreds of unwanted and potentially harmful molecules or materials, sometimes including the bacteria themselves. As a result, the drug has to be separated from the mixture, or purified, a slow and expensive process.

The workhorse technology now used for purifying drugs, called chromatography, involves letting the mixture flow slowly down a column. Different compounds descend at different speeds, so as a mixture drips down the column, its molecules separate into pure bands. The desired drug can then be captured as a purified band. The process requires considerable use of expensive solvents and also is difficult to use for large-scale production. As a result, researchers have for some time discussed replacing chromatography with a membrane that would automatically capture the desired

Contact: Charles Martin
University of Florida

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