Opening industry for green pharmaceuticals

2020-10-05 The biodegradability of drugs was previously considered an environmental issue. Now Leuphana, together with leading pharmaceutical companies, is a partner in the EU project "Priorisation and Risk Evaluation of Medicines in the Environment" (PREMIER). "This means that Benign by Design has finally found its way into politics and industry," says Professor Dr. Klaus Kümmerer from the Institute for Sustainable Chemistry.

Prof. Dr. Klaus Kümmerer is professor for Sustainable Chemistry and Material Resources at Leuphana University. ©Leuphana / Patrizia Jäger
Prof. Dr. Klaus Kümmerer is professor for Sustainable Chemistry and Material Resources at Leuphana University.

According to the Federal Environment Agency, there are about 2500 to 3000 active pharmaceutical ingredients approved in Germany. Many of them end up in the environment after ingestion – either through improper disposal or incomplete metabolism in the body. Possible environmental risks are only known for a small number of the active ingredients. Although environmental impact assessments have had to be carried out since 2006, there is often a lack of knowledge for active ingredients that were approved before this time, and this is the vast majority. The international research project PREMIER aims to investigate, among other things, the environmental risks of older active ingredients, but also measures to reduce the entry of drugs into the environment in the future. PREMIER is organized by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI). It is a public-private partnership of the EU to finance health research. Besides Leuphana, PREMIER partners include research-based pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, Bayer, Roche, Novartis, GSK and Pfizer. In addition, the European Medicines Agency, research institutes such as the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, and the Universities of Exeter, York, Gothenburg and Helsinki. The British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is leading the 6-year project together with the Radboud University of Nijmwegen.

Klaus Kümmerer and his colleagues would like to develop a common understanding of green pharmacy with all stakeholders through scientific papers and workshops, among other things, and create greater acceptance for it. "There are often blockades. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are sometimes concerned that a drug would no longer be effective if it is biodegradable in the environment. But for us, green pharmacy means that the drug is stable in the patient's body and only decomposes in the environment," the chemist explains. Within the framework of the research project, he and project collaborator Dr.-Ing. Oliver Olsson would like to have an intensive exchange with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and other participants such as patient representatives and environmental and water associations. "We would like to know what production approaches, arguments from society as a whole and acceptance there is at present, then jointly identify potential and finally implement the methods in practice. We are interested in the substances of the future". Up to now, green pharmaceuticals have been considered an environmental issue: "Now we are finally in the industry," says Kümmerer. With the development of two environmentally friendly antibiotics and a beta-blocker, his research group has shown that green pharmacy is possible – even during the development of the active ingredient. 

The project is being funded by the EU with a total of around 5 million euros, with industry contributing a similar amount of its own funds. Leuphana receives 200,000 euros from the EU budget.