St. John's startup claims breakthrough recycling medication

Unbound Chemicals says it has the know-how to rescue active ingredients from old prescription pills

Nailing the extraction process a key to future growth in pharmaceutical recycling

Unbound Chemicals consists of chief science officer Ali Azizi, left, and CEO Blaine Edwards. (Submitted by Unbound Chemicals)

A breakthrough in a laboratory in St. John's could mean the unwanted pills in your medicine cabinet will some day be turned into new drugs rather than being trashed.

Unbound Chemicals, a startup company at Memorial University's Genesis Centre, has developed a process to extract the active ingredient from expired prescription pills.

A few weeks ago the company extracted the active ingredient from the antidepressant trimipramine.

"We achieved 99.9 per cent purity," said Blaine Edwards of Unbound Chemicals. "That was a milestone."

Edwards said it's estimated that globally, almost a third of manufactured drugs are never used — and the active drugs inside those pills have value.

The first extraction of the pills results in a pink powder. After a second extraction, the powder is white as seen on the left. (Submitted by Unbound Chemicals)

"The pharmaceutical industry is probably the most valuable waste resource on the planet that has no recycling process in place," he said.

In the future, that could mean extracting and recycling active ingredients for use in manufacturing new pills, but Edwards said that's a long way away, with a lot of red tape.

"To have them used in new medications would be a groundbreaking regulatory breakthrough," said Edwards. 

"There's a huge regulatory process you'd need to go through."

[Disclaimer: Edwards is the spouse of a CBC employee]

Finding markets

So the issue now is finding markets for the extracted drugs.

"Where can we use these chemicals now? Research is a $4-billion industry in North America," he said.

"There are other purposes in the manufacturer sector than just turn them in to new pills for people."

There's other ways the active ingredients can be used. They can be part of laboratory research, or in the manufacturing sector to test run the fabrication of pills, Edwards said.

Unlimited supply?

Edwards said there are many reasons people don't finish medications.

"They can't afford it, don't like the side effects, it didn't work, doctor gave me a new prescription," he said

Pills expire when the non-medicinal ingredient breaks down over time but the drug itself remains intact much longer.

Unbound Chemicals created its extraction process on paper and then successfully applied it in a laboratory at Memorial University. (Submitted by Unbound Chemicals)

Unbound Chemicals reached the extraction milestone in a chemistry lab at Memorial University in St. John's and while Edwards admitted they are just at the "milligram level of research," he said he remains optimistic about someday seeing hundreds of thousands of kilograms of discarded drugs in Canada recycled.

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Cec Haire


Cec Haire reports for CBC News from St. John's.