Thursday, 5 September 2013

Hurdles on the course

This post is a summary of what I already know about the challenges involved in attempting sustainable antibiotic production. I am imagining this might be possible for example for a group of people with relevant knowledge and access to relevant literature, who have a small premises such as a garage which can be devoted to the enterprise.

I noticed in the recent edition of 'Microbiology Today' (2013, 40:3) an article by Simon Park, who has recently produced a short booklet 'Microbiology at home: a short non-laboratory manual for enthusiasts and bioartists', [pdf]. It describes the basics of sterile technique and media preparation, and how these can be done in a home context.

Theoretical viability

I know I need to read up about the evolution of resistant strains, and the genetics of resistance mechanisms,  and their likelihood of surviving post-selection. Although my thinking so far is based on a sense of correlation between antibiotic use and maintenance of resistance, it may be that there are mechanisms which would largely persist even in the absence of anthropogenic selection due to other kinds of usefulness to the microbe. Lots of information already exists in the literature, this is a matter of reading up, putting it together as best-guesses, and perhaps suggesting some experimental designs that would answer further questions.

Technological feasibility

Many skills and technologies are needed to contribute to the process of antibiotic manufacture from isolation to production of any antibiotic. Ways to overcome several of these could be investigated through interviewing elderly scientists from the time before disposable laboratory equipment.

Microscopy; lens-production technology. Light sources for illuminating microscopy, which could be as simple as a laboratory with a big window. Microscopy did exist before electric light.

Glass crafts -- microscopes slides and all kinds of culture vessels. I think this stuff still exists, even though all the lab biology I've done used disposable plastics. Something to look into.

Sterile culture equipment -- bunsen burner or equivalent heat source, wire loops, autoclave (also known as pressure cooker), clean bench and work area; sterile distilled water.

Culture broths and gel media of various kinds for isolation and growing on; recipes and components.

Incubators; thermometers/thermostats.

Fridges, freezers or other methods for storing cultures or spores, in glycerol or otherwise.

Fume hood for working with hazardous fumes.

Production of antibiotic therapeutics

This is the stuff I know less about, so this is not such a detailed list. I have heard that an early penicillin was used to save the lives of some people who had suffered severe burns -- the culture supernatant was used as a topical treatment. That's a use that does not require such great precision and quality control as the production of a reliable dose of an oral or intravenous antibiotic. Some of the pre-requisites I already know about:
Production strains: general knowledge of types of antibiotic and their microbial origins; this is something which could be addressed through a literature review.
Production chemistry & chemical engineering: specifics for production of quanties ie the deep vat innovation.
Product screening, quality control and dose testing.
Pharmacy prep -- pill-making kits etc.


What kind of facilities are needed, and how will they be economically viable? For example microscopy and culture lab could be useful for medical microbiology, water safety testing (fecal contamination screen) and so on. Would a converted garage or large shed be a suitable premises, or not? Can a business plan be put together that would allow such an enterprise to emerge? Could it attract funding as science-inspired art or history of science, or be funded through subscriptions from those interested?

Laboratory technologies don't have to be much more complicated that kitchen equipment -- but a biology enterprise would need safe and separate premises. Strains shouldn't be stored in fridges that are used for food, for example.


  1. Dear Alice,

    Good work. What abut legalities? Here in the US we have the FDA, which might not allow us to do this, but maybe it would if we didn't try to sell any products.

  2. Good point Iuval. There are legal controls over the supply of certain drugs. At the moment my interest is primarily in developing the resource base and surveying technical feasibilities for production, rather than producing. For a business plan, the costs of becoming a registered producer of prescription medication would have to be included.