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Temperature sensitive

Transporting cryogenically frozen medicines might still be a small niche within the overall temperature-sensitive air freight sector, but it is one of the fastest growing, Kerry Reals reports

As the market for personalised medications to treat certain types of cancer grows, and more people turn to reproductive medicine (IVF) to resolve fertility issues, air carriers are seeing an increase in demand for the transportation of small shipments of individually-tailored life sciences materials in specialised containers, known as dewars, which keep their organic contents cryogenically frozen throughout their journey.


According to David Bang, Global Head of DHL Temperature Management Solutions and CEO of DHL Global Forwarding’s LifeConEx unit, the cool chain logistics market for pharmaceuticals continues to be dominated by products that must be kept in the 2-8°C refrigerated temperature range, followed by products in the 2-25°C controlled ambient category. 


Cryogenics accounts for less than 5% of the total market, says Bang. However, he adds that while average growth for the temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals sector as a whole is between 3-5% per annum, the cryogenics market is growing at the higher rate of 5-7% per annum. This is being driven by demand for “personalised medicines that [require] below dry ice temperature”, according to Bang.


This is particularly true in the field of oncology where, for example, a medicine that works for one leukaemia patient may not necessarily be effective in treating somebody else who has the same illness.


“Not all leukaemia patients respond in the same way”, says Bang. Medicines, therefore, need to be tailored individually and this process often involves transporting a blood sample to a laboratory in a different country, which will analyse the sample and produce a small, customised batch of medicine to ship back to the patient. While the blood sample itself may not need to be cryogenically frozen, the resulting vaccines may have to be stored and transported using this method.


Given that time is critically important in getting such medicines to the patient as soon as possible, in what can be life-or-death situations, air cargo operators have an advantage over the ocean freight industry in this sector. 


IAG Cargo’s Global Head of Pharmaceuticals and Life Sciences, Alan Dorling, agrees that cryogenics accounts for a small section of the market at the moment, but says “personalised medicines are driving the need” for this method of temperature-controlled storage and transportation.


In order for an airline to transport something cryogenically it must lease dewars from equipment manufacturers that specialise in using liquid nitrogen to store products at below-freezing temperatures. One such company is California-based Cryoport, which uses liquid nitrogen vapours to keep contents at a constant temperature of below -150°C for up to 10 days. Both DHL and UPS have contracts with Cryoport, but the company says the majority of its air freight customers come from commercial airlines.


Cryoport Vice President of Global Logistics, Robert Copeland, has high hopes for the growth of this sector. He predicts that over the next 1-5 years the market for transporting cryogenically frozen life sciences materials by air will expand by 35-45%.


“Our customer is usually a patient or a clinic and the major products are regenerative medicines,” says Copeland, adding that “the majority of manufacturing we’re seeing is offshore of the US” – particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia. “Once the dosage is manufactured it is then shipped back to the patient,” he explains.


While this has traditionally been an expensive shipping method, costs are coming down as the market becomes more commercialised and globalised.


The key point for air carriers to consider when transporting Cryoport’s containers is that they should be kept upright at all times. The dewars are not sealed – instead they are capped with Styrofoam and a zip-lock tie, meaning that if they are stored horizontally the liquid nitrogen vapours which are essential for keeping the contents at the required temperature can evaporate, reducing the effective hold time of the shipper. >>

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