Argonne National Laboratory is a multilevel facility in Argonne, Ill., where “dream teams” of world-class researchers work alongside experts from industry, academia, and government laboratories to address vital national challenges. A portion of this is in medical technology. Dr. Chris J. Benmore, a physicist, is part of the X-Ray Science Division, Advanced Photon Source at Argonne.

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Dr. Benmore received his PhD in England and started in the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source area of Argonne in 2000. In 2007, he moved to the Advanced Proton Source unit. Today, he is still there, using very-high-energy X-rays, generated from one of the brightest synchrotrons in the world to delve into the mysteries of medical research, among other areas.

Creating Master Drugs

 “In terms of medical research the main thing we’ve been doing is working with a company, Materials Development Inc., and Professor Stephen Byrn, of Purdue University, on developing technologies for the development of fast-acting drugs,” Benmore said. “We have something called an Acoustic Levitator that uses sound to levitate droplets so we can basically ‘glass’ many drugs and pharmaceuticals. That turns out to be very important. If you turn it into a glass, a pharmaceutical can increase its solubility and its bio-availability. Therefore, much more of the drug gets into the bloodstream much faster. It’s usually 100 times more effective. It changes a drug that doesn’t work into one that works very well. This is particularly beneficial in the area of AIDS drugs, a passion of Dr. Byrn’s.”

There are two ways this works. One is very similar to spray drying. A solution of the drug is made by dissolving it in a solvent. Then droplets are levitated in the acoustic levitator. The solvent evaporates off. It turns from a crystalline powder into a glass just by solvent evaporation. It only takes a few minutes. The other way is to put a few drugs into the levitator and zap them with a laser. This heats it up to the melt point. When the laser is turned off, the material cools and glasses that way.

This process is only for orally taken drugs, not injectables. Dr. Benmore said that the biggest problem is how to keep it in a glass state once it has been turned it into one. “Typically in the pharmaceutical industry to do this, they add a polymer to it to stop it from re-crystallizing. By synthesizing it with a polymer, you end up with a glassy powder that can be put into tablet form and distributed that way.

 “We are in the process of patenting this process and are trying to sell the license to the industry, plus we offer a screening service. Companies can come to us with proprietary drugs that they already have and we can tell them if this will work for their product. One of the things that the synchrotron does is it will tell you whether your drug is crystalline or amorphous. Even if only 1 percent of the drug is crystalline, it will cause the drug to crystallize on the shelf. It has to be completely glassy without a trace of crystalline components for it to remain stable and work down the line. Even a trace of crystallinity will reduce the effectiveness and life of the drug.”

The development of this process is quite close to commercialization. Dr. Benmore said that they are close to a patent and already have some pharmaceutical companies interested. There are two aspects to this. First, there is the actual making of the glass using the levitator and the characterization using the synchrotron to figure out the structure and how to keep it a glass. Second, it is ensuring the efficacy of the drug on the shelf.

“There was a big issue with the major AIDS drug that failed because it reverted on the shelf. It reverted and didn’t work anymore and had to be recalled and reformulated. This is what we are working to stop--not just in AIDS drugs, but in all pharmaceuticals. This new process is the key,” said Benmore.

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