Despite their great promise, biologic drugs have a major drawback: extraordinary cost, both to developers and patients.
That's where Thomas Jefferson University comes in.
Launched in February, the Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing aims to standardize training for biologics manufacturing in the United States. The initiative could pave the way for more efficient manufacturing and, in turn, help stem rising prices, said Ron Kander, executive dean of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineer and Commerce at Jefferson East Falls.
"A large amount of the cost in a designer drug is in that supply-chain risk," Kander said. "I think the most promising approach to lowering the overall system cost is by improving quality, improving the supply-chain economics, and improving employee retention."
The manufacturing process involved in growing medicines out of live cells isn't the only factor behind the thousands of dollars charged for each infusion.
Pharmaceutical companies want to recoup their investment in developing drugs. If a biologic drug is administered as an infusion, patients also face facility fees, ancillary medications and other services, in addition to the price of the drug itself, said Rebecca S. Finley, dean of the Jefferson College of Pharmacy.
Highly specialized drugs require more care in handling and storage at hospitals, adding to their cost, she said.
How health insurance plans cover specialty medications also affects the cost to patients.
The supply chain involved in making biologics is one piece where Jefferson sees room for savings.
The institute is a partnership with Ireland's National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training, an international leader in the field. Through the partnership, Jefferson plans to adapt the Irish institute's curriculum for use in the United States.
More efficient, standardized training and manufacturing practices could reduce costly errors that result in lost batches of drugs. Companies could reduce staff turnover, another supply-chain cost, by hiring workers trained specifically to make biologics, Kander said.
The institute would be the first to offer such training in the U.S., he said, offering Jefferson's recently merged pharmaceutical school a competitive advantage over other pharmacy programs, Kander said.
"This is a career of the future," he said.