Scottish researchers are exploring a ‘world first’ process that could see industrial plastic waste used to manufacture pharmaceuticals for neurological conditions.

The innovative project takes a type of plastic commonly used in the production of food and drink packaging and uses bacteria and enzymes to break it down so it can be used for medicines.

The research, by scientists from Grangemouth-based Impact Solutions and biotechnology researchers from Edinburgh University, is the first time scientists have explored the use of PET plastic as a starting point for pharmaceutical manufacture.

The project uses genetically modified bacteria and enzymes to break down waste polyethylene terephthalate (PET), supplied by Livingston-based API Foilmakers. The business, which has been making printed products since 1781, produces rolls of plastic-backed foil stretching to approximately 18 kilometres each month, and creates up to 100 tonnes of PET waste.

As well as waste linked to production, the printing method also means that one small error can render an entire roll unusable.

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However, once the waste PET is broken down, the core chemical components can be converted into valuable pharmaceuticals for treating a range of life-limiting conditions, such as brain disorders.

Although other companies have been known to use enzymes to breakdown PET, the results are often lower quality plastic which still generate landfill in the long term.

The new process is being described as “a turning point for the pharmaceutical sector”, with potential to be used to find fresh uses for waste PET from other sectors.

While with most pharmaceuticals are currently petrochemical based, and medicines mostly manufactured overseas, the project is said to represent an opportunity to develop more a more sustainable, Scottish-based alternative.

The new project is being supported by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), established in 2014 to stimulate growth of the Industrial Biotechnology (IB) in Scotland.

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A key component in Scotland’s National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology, it recently set a new target of £1.2 billion in associated turnover and 4,000 direct employees by 2025 for the industry in Scotland.

Its role is to facilitate collaboration, provide scale-up capabilities, develop networks and skills and training provisions, and has so far provided support for more than 200 companies, across a range of collaborative innovation projects.

Simon Rathbone, development manager at Impact Solutions, which was established in 2002 from former BP employees, said: “We are thrilled to be leading on this exciting project which could have a major influence in the way we produce pharmaceuticals here in the UK.

“By exploring the use of PET as part of the manufacturing method, we are not only addressing the environmental challenges posed by plastic waste but also creating a sustainable approach for producing essential medicines.

“At the moment we are working towards a small-scale proof of concept, laying the foundation for the future commercialisation of this technology.

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“Of course, discussions around regulation and trials will come further down the line as we prove the capabilities of this process at scale.”

Impact Solutions is also exploring a range of other methods to extract high value chemicals from a range of waste sources and by-products.

The team has previously worked with IBioIC and seafood suppliers Farne Salmon to produce nylon using by-products from fish processing.

While the research group is also exploring the various paths from PET to other forms of medication, raising the possibility that the method could be used in the production of a wide range of medicines in the future.

The work feeds into the UK government’s recent Life Science’s Vision which was launched in 2021 and aims to create a competitive environment for life sciences manufacturing in the UK, building resilience in response to international disruption and shortages experienced during the pandemic.

Liz Fletcher, director of business engagement at IBioIC, said: “The exploration of PET plastics as a feed source for manufacturing medication represents a significant leap forward in bio-based medicines.

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“The research also marks an important step in Scotland’s efforts to reach net zero, using enzymes and engineered biology for sustainable manufacturing. We look forward to witnessing the positive impact of this project and are pleased to continue our support for a company providing valuable alternatives for industrial plastic waste.”

Dr Stephen Wallace, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and senior lecturer in biotechnology at University of Edinburgh, added: “There’s potential for this to be a turning point for the pharmaceutical sector.

“While this project is focused on a specific type of plastic waste from the foil rolls, it’s a platform technology that could in the future be applied to alternative forms of waste PET from other sectors – if we get the foundations right.

“We’ve already had some promising talks with big pharma companies keen to explore this new approach.”