GlaxoSmithKline’s Philip Leslie and the new vaccine vials which he hopes will make treatments against polio, influenza and gastro cheaper in the developing world. Photo: Supplied
Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has partnered with university researchers in Melbourne to develop a new manufacturing method to make vaccines cheaper for families in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.
In the shadow of Mount Dandenong, staff at the British drug company’s Melbourne operations have applied blow-fill-seal technology – making plastic vials and then filling them with medicine – to oral vaccines, such as those used for polio, influenza and gastro.
The company dreamt up the method about five years ago but faced a big challenge: how to quickly insert the vaccine, which must be kept below 30 degrees celsius, into the plastic vials, which need to be heated to 160 degrees during their formation.
“It was a problem about how do we use blow-fill-seal technology and not kill the vaccine,” said GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) site technical lead Philip Leslie.
“At that’s when we worked with Monash University to understand how to do that.”
And what was the solution? Mr Leslie laughs and tells me my life might become shorter if he disclosed the secret.
Thankfully, he is joking.
“It’s all thermodynamics really. We have a lot of cooling in the machine and around the fill area but we keep the plastic warm enough so we can seal it.”
The project is a milestone for the multinational company because it changes the way in which sensitive medical treatments can be stored and administered.
Mr Leslie is particularly concerned about how it can make vaccines cheaper in the developing world. Previously, vaccines were filled in clunky glass vials that took up a lot of room in the cold supply chain, which accounts for significant part of the price of administering the vaccine.
Using the blow-fill-seal technology, Mr Leslie says the vials can be packed tighter, so much so that 60 per cent more can fit in the same-sized box used to store existing vaccines.
“There is also a temperature sensitive label so a health professional can see if it has gone out of its … temperature range for too long. We are talking about the outskirts of Africa here [where heat can be an issue].”
The new manufacturing method will be trialled over three years to determine the exact cost savings compared with existing ways to administer vaccines.
GSK has spent $7.7 million on the project, with the federal government contributing another $1 million through its Manufacturing Transition Programme.
Mr Leslie said it is the type of project that sits well with the Turnbull government’s innovation statement, which it released last week.
“Advance manufacturing in Australia has to involve high-value products and complex processes such as automation to ensure we stay competitive.
“The government funding also enabled GSK to make the decision to invest. Australia punches above its weight in terms with its research but lags with the industrialisation of those ideas.
“This has been a great example of working with Monash University and academia to overcome problems to create an opportunity and bring it into manufacturing.”
GSK Australia vice president and general manager Geoff McDonald hoped such partnerships made Australia an attractive investment destination to develop global technology.
“Australia boasts world-class research infrastructure and a strong pharmaceutical manufacturing capability. These strengths make Australia an attractive environment for investment by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors especially when paired with supportive government programs and policies,” Mr McDonald said.