Scientists work to overcome obstacles in synthetic heparin

Heparin remains in high demand in the United States, with more than 300,000 doses used daily. The blood thinner, which has been widely used since the 1930s, saves lives by preventing potentially fatal blood clots and reducing the amount of time patients with kidney failure stay on dialysis machines. However, controversy surrounds the medication and companies are quickly working on alternatives.

The active ingredient in heparin is derived from pig intestines and the demand for the drug has become so great that the domestic pig population cannot meet the demand. To meet the immediate need, pharmaceutical companies have turned to China, which has three times the pig population.

But importing drugs from China has raised some serious concerns. Earlier this year, 81 people died and hundreds more were sickened after receiving doses of heparin, which was later found to have been contaminated in a Chinese manufacturing plant.

As a result, scientists are eagerly working to develop a synthetic version of heparin that could be made in U.S. labs, thus preventing future scares. In August, we told you about Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Robert Linhardt, who had just announced that after years of work his research team appeared to have successfully devised a synthetic heparin.

Linhardt and his team continue to forge ahead with the synthetic drug, according to the Scientific American. The challenge, however, is that it is hard to mass produce. It took a year for Linhardt and his team to produce 100 milligrams of the synthetic version, which pales in comparison to the more than 100 metric tons of heparin needed to meet the world’s demand for just one year.

Linhardt hopes to have a gram of synthetic heparin – or enough to give 100 doses to mice to start animal trials – within a year. Far more of the synthetic drug would be needed for clinical testing on patients, presenting a further challenge. Cost could become another issue, as heparin made from pig intestines costs only about 20 cents per dose and making the synthetic version a feasible business would take years and a huge investment.

However, Linhardt says mass production of the synthetic heparin would have benefits that far outweigh the negatives: “The future is one that will be short continuously of heparin,” he was quoted in Scientific American. “Which means any adulterations of the heparin (imported by the U.S.), we’re going to have to live with—or catch.”