Delivering New Medicines and Healthcare Options

Chemical engineering’s innovations in medical science run the gamut from antibiotics to new methods of drug delivery; from non-invasive surgery to bioengineered tissue replacement. These advances have brought us an abundant supply of penicillin, nearly painless tests for diabetes, hemodialysis, transdermal patches, and even modern sunscreen … to name only a few achievements. Chemical engineering saves lives by the millions.


1943 — Large-scale production of penicillin is achieved using submerged fermentation; mold is grown in agitated and aerated tanks, rather than on the medium surface. (Abbott; Lederle; Merck; Pfizer; Squibb)

1949 — The Skeggs Leonards artificial kidney becomes the first practical flat-plate dialyzer, employing negative pressure and hydrostatic ultrafiltration.

Leonard Skeggs, PhD, and Jack Leonards, MD, developed the first parallel-flow artificial kidney at Case Western Reserve Univ. (Cleveland, OH). Two sheets of membrane were sandwiched between two rubber pads in order to reduce the blood volume and to ensure uniform distribution of blood across the membrane. The device had a very low resistance to blood flow and it could be used without a blood pump. The dialyzer used negative pressure — creating a siphon on the effluent of the dialyzing fluid — to remove water from the blood in the artificial kidney. (Development coordinated by the U.S. National Institutes of Health)

1964 — First portable patient dialysis machine is developed. The Milton Roy Model A was designed to perform nocturnal home hemodialysis. (Univ. of Washington)

1977 — Sunscreens containing compounds (such as oxybenzone) that absorb ultraviolet and/or reflect light (titanium dioxide, zinc oxide) are invented. (U.S. Patent 4,129,645)

circa 1982 — Pressure swing adsorption (PSA) is used to produce enriched oxygen in portable generators that allow patients to receive medical oxygen without sacrificing their mobility. The process was first used in air drying during the 1960s. (Esso Research and Engineering Co.)

circa 1985 — Dime-sized dissolvable plastic wafers that release chemotherapy drugs to sites of excised brain tumors are developed.

Implanted at the time of surgery, the biodegradable Gliadel Wafer (polifeprosan 20 with carmustine implant) was the first commercially available brain cancer treatment to deliver chemotherapy directly to the tumor site. The wafer minimizes exposure to other parts of the body, and complements standard therapies, such as surgery, radiation and intravenous injections. (MIT; Johns Hopkins Univ.)

1998 — Biodegradable plastic scaffolds, capable of regenerating damaged organ tissues, e.g., skin, are produced. (MIT)

1998 — Temperature- and flow-controlled micro­fluidic reactors and subsequent micro- electrophoresis separator carry out various genetic analyses. (Univ. of Michigan)

2000 — Painless blood sampling using micro-needle arrays, for closed-loop control of insulin infusion and continuous drug monitoring, are developed. (Univ. of Texas)

2006 — Photosensitive silicone lenses that can be precisely and non-invasively adjusted after cataract surgery provide clearer vision in early clinical trials. (Cal Tech)