Project aims to prove plastic can be fantastic for pharmaceuticals


A TEAM of Scottish researchers is exploring a new process that could see plastic waste from industrial processes used to manufacture pharmaceuticals for neurological conditions, in what is believed to be a world first.

Scientists from Impact Solutions, biotechnology researchers from the University of Edinburgh, packaging manufacturer API Foilmakers, and the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) are exploring the feasibility of a new approach to recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – a type of plastic commonly used in the production of food and drink packaging.

The project represents the first time scientists have explored the use of PET plastic as a starting point for manufacturing medication. Using genetically modified bacteria and enzymes to break down the plastic waste, the core chemical components can then be converted into valuable pharmaceuticals for treating a range of life-limiting conditions such as brain disorders. 

Livingston-based API Foilmakers, the company providing the input material, produces rolls of plastic-backed foil stretching to approximately 18 kilometres each month, creating up to 100 tonnes of PET waste. The printing method also means that one small error can render an entire roll unusable. 

While other companies have been known to use enzymes to breakdown PET, this can often produce lower quality plastic which still generate landfill in the long term.

As the majority of pharmaceuticals are currently petrochemical based, and with medicines mostly manufactured overseas, the project represents an opportunity to develop more sustainable techniques. Impact Solutions is already exploring a number of other methods to extract high value chemicals from a range of waste sources and by-products. The team previously worked with IBioIC and seafood suppliers Farne Salmon to produce nylon using by-products from fish processing.

Simon Rathbone, development manager at Impact Solutions, said: “We are thrilled to be leading on this exciting project which could have a major influence in the way we produce pharmaceuticals here in the UK. By exploring the use of PET as part of the manufacturing method, we are not only addressing the environmental challenges posed by plastic waste but also creating a sustainable approach for producing essential medicines.

“At the moment we are working towards a small-scale proof of concept, laying the foundation for the future commercialisation of this technology. Of course, discussions around regulation and trials will come further down the line as we prove the capabilities of this process at scale.” 

The research group is also exploring the various paths from PET to other forms of medication, supporting the UK government’s recent Life Science’s Vision[2]. Published in 2021, the vision was set to create a globally competitive environment for life sciences manufacturing in the UK, building resilience in response to international disruption and shortages experienced during the pandemic.

Liz Fletcher, director of business engagement at IBioIC, said: “The exploration of PET plastics as a feed source for manufacturing medication represents a significant leap forward in bio-based medicines. The research also marks an important step in Scotland’s efforts to reach net zero, using enzymes and engineered biology for sustainable manufacturing. We look forward to witnessing the positive impact of this project and are pleased to continue our support for a company providing valuable alternatives for industrial plastic waste.”

Dr Stephen Wallace, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and senior lecturer in biotechnology at University of Edinburgh, added: “There’s potential for this to be a turning point for the pharmaceutical sector. While this project is focused on a specific type of plastic waste from the foil rolls, it’s a platform technology that could in the future be applied to alternative forms of waste PET from other sectors – if we get the foundations right. We’ve already had some promising talks with big pharma companies keen to explore this new approach.”

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