Prioritizing Pharma’s Green Engineering Needs

Continuous processing and bioprocesses deserve more attention, says GSK’s Conchita Jimenez-Gonzalez, who chairs the ACS GCI Pharma Roundtable.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

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Recently, the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Roundtable issued a report in Organic Process Research & Development prioritizing key green engineering research areas—that is, areas in need of further investment and commitment. The rankings are as follows:

1.    Continuous Processing
2.    Bioprocesses
3.    Separation and Reaction Technologies
4.    Solvent Selection, Recycle and Optimization
5.    Process Intensification
6.    Integration of Life Cycle Assessment
7.    Integration of Chemistry and Engineering
8.    Scale-up Aspects
9.    Process Energy Intensity
10.  Mass and Energy Inspection

We spoke with Roundtable chair Conchita Jimenez-Gonzalez, of GSK, about the rankings’ implications:

PhM: Prioritizing research areas is inherently controversial, as there will be “winners and losers,” so to speak. Was this a concern?

C.J.G.: Prioritization may be controversial, but it is essential if one wants to focus—or, as in this case, focus the research. We were not concerned about creating “winners and losers.” Instead, the Roundtable built on the previous experience from the green chemistry paper [on Green Chemistry Research Areas] and its success that has demonstrated that prioritizing helps to focus direction without forgetting the rest of the aspects.

PhM: How did members formulate their individual rankings? In your case, for example, how did you gather input that would adequately represent your company?

C.J.G.: I am not sure about the rest of the companies. In GSK we had an internal discussion within the R&D engineering, sustainability and EHS groups to determine the priorities from our perspective. We use a consensus methodology so all the stakeholders in the company would agree with the top votes.

PhM: Not only is continuous processing at the top of the Roundtable’s list, but it is a recurring theme throughout. Is it accurate to say that the Roundtable is equating continuous processes with greener processes, or endorsing them as a key to a more sustainable future in the industry?

C.J.G.: Continuous processing is at the top of the Roundtable list given the votes and consensus of the members. The recurring topic relates mostly to process intensification, which can be quite related to this type of processing. The ultimate ranking mainly reflects that much research needs to be done to bring continuous processing in pharmaceuticals to the same level of maturity of other industries, so the advantages can be leveraged in terms of efficiency and greener alternatives when it makes sense to use continuous.

PhM: The article suggests that innovations in industrial bioprocesses have far outpaced those in biopharmaceuticals. Is it fair to say that the Roundtable feels that biopharma has missed opportunities to innovate (e.g., develop more sustainable processes), due primarily to the strict regulatory environment under which it has operated?

C.J.G.: There are many factors that may influence innovation—the paper focuses on the current technical development gaps on the pharmaceutical industry. Bioprocesses remain an area of opportunity, although some good progress has been done, for instance the work that Merck and Codexis did for Januvia that won another Presidential Green chemistry award. However, these examples are not the norm.


PhM: Life Cycle Assessment, as the article says, is still not widely practiced in pharmaceuticals. Yet isn’t this sort of the ultimate metric in assessing the sustainability of processes and products?

C.J.G.: LCA is indeed the best framework so far to measure sustainability–especially when environmental LCA is integrated with LCC and S-LCA (life cycle costing and social LCA). Unfortunately, the uptake has been hindered because this is a tool that can be very labor intensive, there is not a good database of fine and complex chemicals used in pharma. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that most people do not understand the fundamentals of LCA beyond the tactical calculations, and thus find it difficult to communicate the outputs within the context of uncertainty; and especially find it challenging to translate a very complex context into specific learnings and guidance for the development scientists and engineers.    

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