Novartis-MIT Center Aims To Transform Drug-Manufacturing Process

Strengthening the ties to the world-class university science that spurred it to move its global research operations to Cambridge five years ago, pharmaceutical maker Novartis (NYSE: NVS) announced today that it has formed a 10-year, $65 million partnership with MIT. The funding will be used to create a new center aimed at transforming the way drugs are manufactured.

Called the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing, the entity will be focused on finding ways to move away from the pharmaceutical industry’s current standard production method, in which drugs are made in batches, to what is known as continuous manufacturing—an automated process that is expected to be much more efficient, in terms of both time and money. “It was a perceived need at Novartis, and across the industry, that one needs to make a drastic change, a quantum leap in pharmaceutical processing,” says Bernhardt Trout, the MIT associate professor of engineering who will serve as director of the new center. Trout called the effort “absolutely” the only one of its kind in the world.

The center will support the research activities of up to 10 MIT faculty members over time, starting with a core of six MIT faculty: Trout, Charles Cooney, Alan Hatton, Klavs Jensen, Gregory McRae, and Stephen Buchwald. In addition, says Trout, “there’s going to be 30-40 graduate students and post-docs.” He calls the center a “really great opportunity for them to perform cutting-edge research” that could have important ramifications for the drug industry.

Trout calls the Novartis/MIT effort “a virtual center.” The administrative headquarters will be at MIT, in the building where Trout works. But “all the research is going to go on in the professors’ laboratories,” he says. In addition, MIT faculty will work with some of their Novartis counterparts. “Novartis isn’t going to have people at MIT per se but we’re certainly collaborating with Novartis,” Trout says. As far as intellectual property rights go, “Whoever does the invention owns it. If it’s done jointly it’s owned jointly,” he says.

Although the researchers will pursue several different technical areas, everything is focused on changing the process by which precursor chemicals are transformed into consumer-ready pills, capsules, and other medications. “‘Continuous manufacturing’ has become a buzz-phrase in the pharmaceutical industry today,” says Trout. “It’s one of these terms that’s used to mean many different things. What it means to us is a fully integrated flow from input to output where all the transformations occur along the way continuously.”

Novartis will provide the funding in two stages. “The first stage is five years, $40 million,” says Trout. The rest of the funding would come over the next five years. MIT president Susan Hockfield, Novartis chief executive Daniel Vasella, and FDA Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock are expected to help kick off the center at a 4:00 pm ceremony this afternoon, according to a Novartis spokesman.

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