Author : Lawrence Ganti Rethinking glass as President of Customer Operations & Chief Business Officer at SiO2 Materials. Forbes Council Member.
Why is it that one of the biggest bottlenecks in getting advanced drug therapies and vaccines to patients who need them most is not an issue with the funding, or the research, or a lack of participants in trials — but the drug’s packaging?
The pharmaceutical industry is innovating every day to eradicate disease and treat illness, and even accomplished a massive feat in the past year to create, test and distribute Covid-19 vaccines around the world. Yet those drugs may get to the people who need them the most damaged or contaminated because of their packaging, which isn’t keeping pace with pharma innovation. In fact, the main material used in pharmaceutical packaging is glass invented 140 years ago, which has changed little since then and brings a realm of issues with it.
Are drug companies prepared for the future with the current state of packaging? I believe that the pharma packaging industry has reached a pivotal point where using the current materials may no longer be sustainable — but what’s next? Here are some of the trends shaping the future of pharma packaging today.
Trends That Will Shape The Future Of Pharma Packaging
The trends currently shaping the present and future of pharmaceutical packaging stem largely from the realization that the way things have been done may not be sustainable, adaptable or safe for the future — and that new options and alternatives are desperately needed.
One: Covid-19 And The Risk Of Glass Dependence
As drug makers devoted all their resources to creating, testing and getting a Covid-19 vaccine to the entire world, one challenge quickly became clear: the bottleneck would be the packaging. Not only was the sand that makes pharmaceutical-quality glass in high demand, but the need for enough glass vials to deliver vaccine doses to every person on the planet was also difficult to meet. As drug makers looked ahead to delivery, it became clear that there not only wasn’t enough glass vials in existence to fill the need, producing the number needed could have taken years — a non-negotiable time frame when it came to ending a global pandemic.
Since pharma glass manufacturing sits with just a few companies, the world was essentially at the mercy of their commitment to producing the containers needed. And with few alternatives available, the world realized that their dependence on glass was going to stall the end of the pandemic.
A focus for the near and far future will be having alternatives. That means diversifying glass manufacturing companies so there are options outside the major suppliers. It also means creating vials and drug delivery containers from new materials that are just as effective, if not more so, than glass, but that can be produced quickly, are resistant to breakage, don’t risk delamination or contamination of the drugs, and generally eliminate the issues glass is responsible for.
Two: Rise Of Biologics And Molecular Diagnostics
Another trend informing the present and future of packaging is how drugs are being developed today. For most of modern pharmacological history, the drugs produced were small molecules, simple synthetic solutions that fared fine with glass packaging. However, about 30 years ago, drug production began shifting to medications and therapies derived from living organisms. These drugs called biologics are much more complex than small molecule drugs, and require more advanced packaging to protect and preserve their therapeutic benefits. They’re sensitive to the conditions around them, which means they need more robust containers than what ordinary glass can give. Additionally, biologics can interact with the chemicals on the surface of glass, creating aggregates and leachable compound into the biologic drug formulation, thus causing contamination.
With biologics being a large part of the future of drug therapy — as of 2020, over half of the ten best-selling drugs were biologics — the future of drug packaging needs to provide a way to keep this new class of drugs safe and effective.
Three: Reduced Risk Of Adverse Drug Reactions
One of the biggest reasons for drug recalls is particulate contamination, or invisible matter found in the drug containers. This happens when the surface properties of glass vials and containers interact adversely with the drugs in them, producing particulate material that, if administered to patients, “could obstruct blood vessels and result in local irritation of blood vessels, swelling at the site of injection…blood clots traveling to the lung, scarring of the lung tissues, and allergic reactions that could lead to life-threatening consequences” — so says just one FDA recall announcement based on glass-related issues.
Health professionals are already careful enough to avoid adverse drug reactions with the patients they treat — why should packaging have to be a dangerous factor, too? A much-needed trend will be eliminating any additives or lubricants added to drug containers and delivery systems that can cause adverse drug reactions, which means looking at new materials and innovations in packaging.
Four: Patient Accessibility
Drugs are no longer just being delivered in standard vials, but are being manufactured in prefilled containers and delivery devices, like prefilled syringes and cartridges, auto-injectors and wearables. Additionally, the industry is manufacturing medication that can be self-administered and doesn’t need a healthcare professional present. These pre-filled packaging options need to be made out of a material that will be durable, moldable to the different delivery systems needed and extremely precise in their dimension to deliver the right dosing — factors that will be challenging for traditional glass to handle.
Preparing for the Future of Pharma Packaging
Overall, the biggest trend will be realizing that drug companies can spend time, research and resources creating therapies that will save lives, yet also need to be concerned about the packaging it’ll be delivered in as part of its overall product. Without robust, versatile packaging that will not only keep drugs safe but won’t contribute to contamination or breakage, the future of drug packaging is bright for companies focused on glass alternatives.