They’re using virtual reality to ensure patients get safe and effective drugs

Jaren Auclair, associate teaching professor of biotechnology at Northeastern, directs the Biopharmaceutical Analysis Training Laboratory. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Not all drugs are created equal.

Biologics, produced from living organisms, such as proteins, vaccines, and blood components, are some of the toughest drugs to concoct. Their complex molecular structures make them difficult to produce, especially when compared to small-molecule drugs that can be chemically synthesized in a test tube.

To develop biologics, manufacturers need to use a multitude of sophisticated techniques to ensure that the final products contain effective  compounds—and that they are safe for patients. The skills needed to produce biopharmaceuticals are in high demand around the world, says Jared Auclair, an associate teaching professor of biotechnology at Northeastern.

“The main challenge that we’re always trying to address is that patients receive medicines—drugs like aspirin, insulin, whatever they are—that are produced in a safe environment, made sturdily, that they are what people say they are,” Auclair says.

Picture of signing of memorandum of understanding

Mike McMullen, president and chief executive officer of Agilent, signs a memorandum of understanding with David Luzzi, senior vice provost for research, vice president of the Innovation Campus at Burlington, Massachusetts, and professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern. Photo courtesy of Ev Dow

In efforts to help researchers produce quality medicine worldwide, Northeastern’s Biopharmaceutical Analysis Training Laboratoryestablished in 2014 and directed by Auclair, is training students, researchers, and drug regulators worldwide on the best practices and challenges involved in producing new drugs. In early 2019, Auclair’s lab received a $4.3 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center to expand its research space, which is being used to help trainees understand potential issues in the drug-making process, such as falsified data or information that has been tampered with, Auclair says. 

This funding enabled Northeastern to open a new facility on its campus in Burlington, Massachusetts. Given the scope and goals of this new initiative, Auclair joined forces with Agilent, a leader in analytical laboratory solutions and the biopharmaceutical industry, headquartered in Santa Clara, California.

“Agilent’s mission is to improve the human condition, and the Northeastern BATL  is doing just that by ensuring regulators and industry scientists are properly trained in the constantly growing field of biopharmaceuticals. Agilent is thrilled to be a partner of this program,” said Darlene Solomon, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Agilent, during a visit to the Burlington campus with Mike McMullen, president and chief executive officer of the company.

The partnership will provide the Northeastern team access to cutting-edge lab instruments, automated liquid handlers, reagent kits, and robust cloud-based technologies. The idea, Auclair says, is to be able to provide experiential learning to scientists anywhere in the world. 

“Agilent’s cloud-based, virtual-reality interface, along with their high-end instrumentation is crucial to our mission wherever I train around the world to give that hands-on experience, whether I’m in Ethiopia, or here in Boston,” Auclair says. “That is the hardest and most important part of any training experiments that we do towards providing quality, safe, and effective medicines, and this partnership with Agilent will allow us to do this anywhere, anytime.”

“Instead of teaching on things that have happened in the past,” he says. “We can really be at the forefront of where the industry is going in terms of characterizing protein drugs and selling gene-based therapies.”

And, Auclair says, as the scientific community rushes to develop a vaccine and treatments for the COVID-19 illness, the quality and safety of new drugs is more important than ever.

“We have to ensure that those things happen without affecting the quality, efficacy, and safety of any drug product or diagnostic that comes on the market,” he says. “You could imagine cutting corners and having a disaster on top of the global pandemic that already exists.”

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