How Green Pharma Can Cure Disease and (Possibly) Save the Planet
Among the many industries that could become green in the future, the pharmaceutical industry is one with excellent potential.
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As managing climate change is becoming an increasingly urgent issue, the demand for sustainable business practices has gone from a buzzword to a benchmark. Managing carbon footprint and minimizing waste are only two of the criteria companies are being measured on. The pharmaceutical industry has so far avoided the spotlight in this respect. As COP27 is underway, it is time to look at the status quo and assess what the forerunners of green pharma are doing to cure patients while protecting the planet.
The environmental impact of big pharma in the United States
American pharmaceutical companies dominate the global market for prescription drugs and other medications. While several emerging markets are catching up and growing their influence, the United States still dominates sales worldwide. Over the past few years, U.S.-based sales of pharmaceutical products accounted for nearly 50% of global pharmaceutical sales.
In addition, statistics show that 5 of the ten biggest global pharmaceutical enterprises were based in the United States in 2021. Pfizer has become the pack's leader thanks to developing one of the leading Covid-19 vaccines. However, a second company, AbbVie, is catching up fast as the release of its drug Humira helped the business generate an unparalleled $55 billion in sales in 2021 alone.
Considering its economic impact, it may be a surprise that the pharmaceutical industry has received little scrutiny regarding its environmental impact. Other manufacturers, such as the automotive industries, generated more attention. That does not mean pharmaceutical companies can relax regarding their carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.
A recent analysis of the sector's emissions demonstrated that the pharmaceutical industry could hardly be considered a green industry sector. However, while the study showed that several leading manufacturers struggled to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, others already exceeded government targets for 2025.
How pharmaceutical companies can embrace greener practices
Across the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, research into greener business practices has gathered momentum for more than 20 years. Reducing the environmental impact of chemical development and production lies at the heart of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, published in 1998. These principles still apply today.
Companies making an impact by using the principles of Green Chemistry employ the specified principles of environmentally safe protocols that include waste reduction, energy conservation and the elimination and reduction of hazardous waste as a byproduct of their work.
But, according to the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry Institute, mainstream businesses have not yet fully embraced the technology that would help them become greener. According to the ACS, too many manufacturers continue to rely on petroleum derivatives in their manufacturing.
However, there are notable exceptions. One of the biggest pharmaceutical companies to embrace green chemistry is AstraZeneca. Like Pfizer, AstraZeneca cemented its position as a household brand by developing a Covid-19 vaccine.
The company's Ambition Zero Carbon program aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 90% by 2045, based on a 2019 baseline. Significant milestones include a 2026 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from global operations by 98%. Another target is the company's entire value chain carbon footprint, intending to cut 50% by 2030.
The scientists at AstraZeneca identified the synthesis of active ingredients in their products as a major contributor to the company's emissions. These active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) are critical to curing patients but cannot be replaced. Scientists needed to find new ways of manufacturing them.
The company collaborated with universities and research institutes to drive innovation in its space, making it a leader in green chemistry.
The role of artificial intelligence and digital transformation in Green Pharma
Minimizing the carbon footprint of the pharmaceutical industry is not only a priority for big-name businesses. Some leading companies may find it harder to complete their digital transformation simply because of existing legacy technology and ingrained approaches to drug development and manufacturing.
Relative newcomers in the space have the advantage of not needing to replace legacy systems. They can build their processes on greener principles right from the start. These principles include developing carbon-neutral therapeutics rather than reducing the environmental footprint of existing ones.
Some of the most promising approaches start right at the beginning of the development phase before clinical trials commence, and they extend through commercialization. This new approach is helped by advances in digital technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
One relative newcomer in the pharmaceutical space, Anavex Life Sciences, has been using machine learning to reduce the carbon footprint of its clinical trials. The company is in the final stages of trialing a dementia medication, promising to help sufferers of diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease dementia. Part of its developmental work has been supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
ANAVEX®2-73 approaches the pathology of dementia and its many forms by increasing the activity of Sigma-1 receptors. Increased Sigma-1 activity can lessen debilitating symptoms and restore normal genetic function.
Anavex conducted a phase 2a trial with 32 patients and used machine learning techniques to enhance its clinical trial outcome assessments. The researchers also leveraged whole genome analysis. Their clinical trials are conducted using a decentralized approach, which the company adopted at the beginning of the pandemic and is planning to maintain. The goal is to minimize its carbon footprint by limiting non-essential travel and using smaller trials.
For the same reason, most meetings are held using video conferencing and other technologies. Decentralizing clinical trials has another advantage because it can make those trials more accessible for participants across the country.
Most pharmaceutical companies own and maintain large wet laboratories, although not many of those are fully utilized all the time. The team behind Anavex decided to forego owning a laboratory that would be idle for weeks, instead relying on project-based toxicology studies required by industry regulators. They believe this approach helped reduce environmental waste and save costs.
The pharmaceutical industry has outstanding potential for becoming a green industry. Applying the 12 principles and taking full advantage of emerging digital technologies will help the industry transform. The key to successful transformation is considering the entire value chain, including supplier selection, facility choice, and research and development processes, which will lead to commercializing the final product.