Chemical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have built a compact pharmaceutical manufacturing system that can be reconfigured to produce a variety of liquid drugs on demand.

The portable machine can manufacture four drugs formulated as solutions or suspensions: Benadryl, lidocaine, Valium and Prozac. Using the machine, the researchers can produce about 1,000 doses of a given drug in 24 hours.

“Think of this as the emergency backup for pharmaceutical manufacturing,” said Allan Myerson, an MIT professor of the practice in the Department of Chemical Engineering. “The purpose is not to replace traditional manufacturing; it’s to provide an alternative for these special situations.”

The system could be rapidly deployed to produce drugs needed to handle an unexpected disease outbreak, or to prevent a drug shortage caused by a manufacturing plant shutdown, the researchers said.

It could also be used to produce small quantities of drugs needed for clinical trials or to treat rare diseases, explained Klavs Jensen, the Warren K. Lewis Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.

“The goal of this project was to build a small-scale, portable unit that was completely integrated, so you could imagine being able to ship it anywhere. And as long as you had the right chemicals, you could make pharmaceuticals,” Jensen said.

Jensen, Myerson, and Timothy Jamison, head of MIT’s Department of Chemistry, are the senior authors of a paper describing the new system in the latest online edition of Science. The lead author is MIT research associate Andrea Adamo.

The compact system uses a continuous process in which chemical reactions take place as the reactants flow through small tubes, instead of in large vats.

According to MIT, traditional batch processing is limited by the difficulty of cooling these vats, but the flow system allows reactions that produce a great deal of heat to be run safely.

The researchers are now working on the second phase of the project, which includes making the system about 40% smaller and producing drugs with more complex chemical syntheses. They are also working on producing tablets, which are more complicated to manufacture than liquid drugs.