Chemical engineering has helped save millions of lives and has improved the quality of life for countless more.
The pharmaceutical industry as we know it got started in the mid-19th century with the rise of such companies as Beecham (UK, later GlaxoSmithKline), Merck (USA) and Pfizer (Germany). In 1900, Bayer (Germany) invented Aspirin, a painkiller we all take for granted today, sitting in everyone’s medicine cabinets alongside paracetamol (1956) and ibuprofen (1969).
In the 1920s, early chemical engineers in Eli Lilly produced insulin on a commercial scale, allowing those with diabetes to manage their condition for the first time. And the discovery of penicillin saved thousands of lives during World War II. Since the 1970s, the development of cancer drugs has seen survival rates double. These are all only produced safely and reliably at scale by virtue of high-quality process engineering
In the 1980s, drugs became more targeted, including Tagamet, a billion-dollar, Nobel prize-winning ulcer medication. And the invention of Prozac revolutionised the treatment of mental health conditions. Pharmaceuticals have also been used as a lifestyle enhancement; for example, the 1960s brought the first oral contraceptives and the 1990s brought us Viagra. The increasing impact in the future of quality-of-life requirements and an aging population will increase the growth of medications in this area.
But we have only just begun the journey to develop more specific and targeted medication, with gene typing and therapies leading a revolution in drug development approaches. Immunotherapies work with the immune system to fight cancer more effectively. Hepatitis C looks set to eliminated but, as we write, activities are focused on beating COVID-19. Chemical engineers will have a key role to play in engineering medicines and using their skills to accelerate the personalisation of medical treatments, diagnosis techniques and the large-scale delivery of vaccines to mitigate the global risks of future pandemics.
In addition to pharmaceuticals, chemical engineers are likely to contribute to many other areas of healthcare: smarter diagnosis methods and systems, personalised medicine, biotechnology for manufacture, very precise and targeted drug delivery, systems engineering applied to cells and the human body…the list of opportunities to make a difference is endless.