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West Columbia Company to Use Robots to Help Produce Injectible Meds

Robots at Nephron Pharmaceuticals perform many tasks. New robots designed by USC engineering students will soon be filling syringes with a variety of medications.
Tut Underwood/SC Public Radioa
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At the growing campus of Nephron Pharmaceuticals in West Columbia, many robots are used for a variety of functions, such as moving pallets of wrapped products and many other purposes.  A new type of robot is joining the line, thanks to a partnership between Nephron and the University of South Carolina's colleges of engineering and pharmacy.  

Nephron CEO Lou Kennedy said the new robots will be used to pre-fill sterile syringes with a variety of injectable medicines quickly and efficiently.  While she lauds the reliability of robots who, unlike humans, don't get sick, pregnant or have accidents that keep them out of work, she is quick to point out that the reason for using robots is not to replace humans.  On the contrary, she said, "if anything, we've got a cooler thing for the human to do in operating the equipment versus maybe doing something with their human hands.  So what I'm excited about is we'll be expanding their education and training, but we can also expand our capabilities."

To underscore the point, Kennedy said the company is adding four new buildings to its complex and plans to hire 350 new employees to expand the business.  Dr. Ramy Harik, who serves USC as a professor of mechanical engineering and also as Nephron's chief of manufacturing, said the company and the colleges make a natural partnership.  "That concept of an engineer is, try to make the world a better place by creating inventions and creating systems that can help people's lives and can help society.  What better project than collaborating with the College of Pharmacy, that you're touching directly on patients' lives?"

One significant way to help save lives these days is by fighting COVID, and Kennedy hopes to use the robots to fill syringes with COVID vaccine if she can collaborate with one of the producers.  "What I hope to do is find a partner, whether it's Phizer or Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or Astro Zeneca.  I'm hopeful that they'll say 'hey, we need to add or expand capacity.'  I can put those vaccines in plastic ampules and so I'm actively looking for a partner that says 'here, can you fill these for us?'"

Harik's goal is for the robots to fill a syringe in 5 seconds or less.  "I think this is something that is attainable" after doing studies and re-studies on the process, he said.  That figures out to more than 17,000 filled syringes every 24 hours for each robot.  Kennedy added that because she looks at Nephron as a big family, the company had a little fun with a name-the-robots contest - which the engineers won - and made the robots a family, with the result that "all of our robotics to deal with syringe or bag filling are named for Simpsons family characters.  So we have Bart, Lisa, Marge, Maggie and Homer."  Of another, "I'm thinking this one could be Mr. Smithers," she chuckled.   

The robots are made by a Japanese company using the designs of USC engineering students under Harik's direction.  After Nephron gets all it needs, Kennedy has an idea to continue producing them for hospitals and other facilities with an eye to continuing the USC connection into the future.  "My goal would be if we could find a way to sell these, that there would always be some portion of the selling price going back to the pharmacy school and the engineering school as a way to sort of potentially endow a scholarship for a bright student that might do some great project in his or her career." 

The robots have just been installed, and Kennedy said by February they should be operational and making medicinal products that can be shipped nationwide to help people with a variety of ailments.