The source of the deadly contamination in the blood thinner heparin, which has killed many patients across the globe has been discovered by a researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
With the help of high-tech equipment and the expertise of his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Robert J. Linhardt attributed the source of this contamination to a complex carbohydrate named oversulfated chondroitin sulfate, having an almost identical structure to heparin.
"Days after the deaths were first linked to heparin, we had the drugs in our hands from the FDA and our nuclear magnetic resonator (NMR) was set into motion to break down the structure of the drug and determine what could possibly be the source of the contamination. Now that we know the most likely source of the contamination, we are developing much stronger monitoring systems to ensure that this type of contamination is detected before it reaches patients," Nature quoted Linhardt, the Ann and John H. Broadbent Jr. '59 Senior Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering at Rensselaer.
The contaminant closely resembled its chemical structure to heparin, and resulted in severe allergic reaction in some of the patients undergoing routine treatment for kidney dialysis, heart surgery, and other common medical issues.
Through their comprehensive structural analysis of the drug, by using technology such as the NMR, the researchers could detect even the tiny discrepancies between the contaminated drug and a normal dosage of heparin.
In the meantime, Linhardt is looking forward to develop a safer, man-made alternative to the traditional biologic heparin, without the using pig scrapings and cow intestines.
"This contamination is unfortunately a sign that the way we currently manufacture heparin is simply unsafe. Because we rely on animals, we open ourselves up for spreading prions and diseases like mad cow disease through these animals. And because most of the raw material is imported, we often can't be sure of exactly what we are getting," he said.
He added: "A synthetic heparin is built using sugars and enzymes found in the human body," Linhardt said of his recipe for synthetic heparin. "So instead of taking pig intestines and trying to purify it over and over again to reduce it down to just heparin, we are building heparin from scratch with no foreign material present. This method ensures that we know exactly what is in the drug and have complete control over its ingredients."
The study is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.