AstraZeneca: Putting Sustainability at the heart of a global business

At global pharmaceutical business AstraZeneca, the belief that the future depends on the interconnection of healthy people, a healthy society and a healthy planet fuels a desire to help tackle the biggest challenges of our time, from climate change to access to healthcare and disease prevention. Meet the people working in ETERNAL to translate the alignment of ETERNAL’s goals and AstraZeneca’s sustainability strategy into demonstrable developments in the use of membranes in pharmaceutical processing to recover and purify solvents with energy efficiency, remove impurities, and reduce ecotoxicity of waste streams.

AstraZeneca’s approach to sustainability starts from a statement of belief: Our future depends on healthy people, a healthy society, and a healthy planet. At AstraZeneca, we believe that these elements are interconnected, and that together we must build a sustainable future. As a global business, AstraZeneca is playing its part in tackling the biggest challenges of our time, from climate change to access to healthcare and disease prevention. By harnessing the power of science and innovation, using their global reach to make a positive impact on society, healthcare systems, and the environment, and by embedding sustainability in everything they do – from the lab to the patient – AstraZeneca are helping to strengthen healthcare systems so that they are more accessible and resilient.

The goals of the ETERNAL project strongly align with AstraZeneca’s sustainability strategy, in particular environmental protection. People and the planet benefit from medicines with the smallest possible environmental impact, while maintaining medical efficacy and safety. As technologies and healthcare systems evolve, so too should solutions to reduce energy, water, material use, waste and pollution generated from designing, manufacturing, and delivering medicines to patients.

One aspect of AstraZeneca’s involvement in ETERNAL is developing the use of membranes in pharmaceutical processing. Three areas are being investigated: the energy efficient recovery and purification of solvents; removal of impurities; the recovery of product from waste streams reducing ecotoxicity. AstraZeneca have recruited two Post Doctoral Researchers to work on the ETERNAL membrane project. Meet Hui Xiao and Yanyue Feng.

Membranes with a mission

Before joining AstraZeneca, Hui Xiao was a PhD and Postdoctoral research associate at the University of Manchester, the birthplace of graphene, and worked towards next generation graphene-based membranes with applications in lithium recovery, heavy metal removal, and ethanol dehydration. Hui joined AstraZeneca as a Postdoctoral researcher in March 2023, in Macclesfield, UK. As a part of the ETERNAL project, he will focus on the application of membranes in Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) purification (impurities removal) and the recovery of API from waste streams.

As the quality of APIs is extremely important to guarantee patient safety, it is key that impurities are avoided and can be removed or purged during purification. The use of membranes offers a different dimension to other purification approaches often used in pharmaceutical manufacture like crystallisation and chromatography. Crystallisation can occlude structurally similar fragments or elemental impurities that can be removed by membranes. According to Hui, “It is estimated that chromatographic purification generates more than 300 times as much solid waste compared to an equivalent membrane purification approach. Moreover, waste streams from production, for example mother liquors from crystallisations or aqueous waste from washes, can often still contain high amounts of API. Membranes can be applied to recover the valuable API while simultaneously reducing the toxicity of the waste streams.”

Membranes can be applied to recover valuable API while simultaneously reducing the toxicity of the waste streams

Although the industrial applications of reverse osmosis and nanofiltration membranes in aqueous solutions have been successfully established in the treatment of wastewater and seawater desalination for quite some time, membrane separations in organic solvents - Organic Solvent Nanofiltration or OSN for short - has only emerged as a new area of membrane science during the last decade, with huge potential for pharmaceutical applications.

Hui is quite excited to explore the application of OSN membranes in the pharmaceutical industry, to achieve an API manufacturing process with lower process mass intensity and carbon emission. “Organic solvent nanofiltration, as a greener alternative to conventional separation technologies like distillation and chromatography, can dramatically reduce energy consumption and waste generation in API purification and recovery processes. This has gained much attention in the industry.”

Paving the way to a sustainable pharmaceutical industry

Yanyue joined AstraZeneca in April 2023, as a Postdoctoral researcher, in Gothenburg Sweden. Before joining the AZ family, she studied materials science at Chalmers University of Technology and obtained her PhD degree in March 2023. She also worked as a process engineer at a German membrane company during 2017 – 2018, upon receiving her MSc degree in environmental science from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Impressed by the prominent role of the pharmaceutical industry in promoting the well-being of humanity and seeing the potential of a greener future of this industry, Yanyue joined her current team. She believes that the implementation of OSN in API manufacturing processes would not only brings considerable economic benefits, but also help pave the way to a sustainable pharmaceutical industry. The main goals of Yanyue’s part of the project are investigating the feasibility of implementing OSN in solvent exchange and solvent recovery processes.

Traditionally, distillations are used in pharmaceutical manufacturing to reduce solvent volumes in reactors and to purify solvents for further use through fractionation. These unit operation are highly inefficient, requiring long plant residence times, and high amounts of energy for heating and cooling. Options for using distillation to purify or exchange solvents can also be limited where contaminants have a similar boiling point to the solvent, or a swap from a high- to a low-boiling-point solvent is needed. As Yanyue explains, “Replacing distillations with OSN has the potential to dramatically lower energy consumption for solvent recovery and purification. Literature examples1 cite 200-fold reduction in energy use and presents new options to remove impurities, including the possibility of continuous processing.”

Replacing distillations with organic solvent nanofiltration has the potential to dramatically lower energy consumption and present new options to remove impurities including continuous processing

Reflecting on the overall spirit of their involvement in ETERNAL, Lead Scientist for New Modalities in AstraZeneca's Early Chemical Development (ECD) group Will Goundry said, “We recognise that working in partnership is critical to achieving our goals, which is why we were delighted to join the ETERNAL consortium. We are looking forward to working with the other project partners to advance our collective understanding and develop more sustainable manufacturing processes for pharmaceuticals. Our contribution to society must respect our environment and ensure the sustainable use of the planet’s finite natural resources. We know a healthy environment is critical for human health.”

1. Livingston, A. G. et al. Sustainability assessment of organic solvent nanofiltration: from fabrication to application. Green Chem., 2014, 16, 4440–4473

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