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A More Cost-Efficient and Sustainable Way to Manufacture Narcan

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An average of 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. That’s according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Earlier this year, a different report concluded that Americans are more likely to die from an opioid overdose than from a car accident.

The overdose reversal drug naloxone – or Narcan – has become an important tool in efforts to reduce overdose deaths. All fifty states allow paramedics to administer Narcan, and many allow other emergency responders and even by-standers to give the drug. Not surprisingly, the number of reported overdose reversals has more than doubled.

But the cost of Narcan can be an obstacle for some communities’ efforts to increase its availability and use. Making Narcan also has some nasty environmental effects – water usage, and toxic chemical waste.

Now, researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis say they have found a more cost-efficient and sustainable way to manufacture naloxone, using bacteria. And that bacteria is found in the waste from opiate processing.

“Narcan is actually an opioid derivative. It's actually made from a chemical in opium,” Toni Kutchan, the Oliver M. Langenberg Distinguished Investigator, VP for Research at the Danforth Center said.

Kutchan and her team discovered that you can grow huge vats of the bacteria, feed them opium and they’d make Narcan. The current way of creating naloxone is pretty severe.

“It is a type of chemistry that is not particularly good for the chemistry workers in the factory and it's not good for the environment because the waste stream has to be treated very strongly to get rid of those toxic components,” Kutchan said.

Kutchan’s bacteria-based method can decrease the environmental footprint of manufacturing the drug, which could of course help the earth, but also hopefully bring down cost.

There are still many steps to go before this could get put into action in a manufacturing setting, but Kutchan and her team do already have a patent on the enzyme.

They’re currently looking for partners that will aid them in production. 

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Web content created by Liz Lerner. 

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.