Print Your Own Drugs - The Future of Drug Manufacturing
You might already have a 3D printer at home. But now things turn wild: a “chemputer” is in the make - essentially it's a 3D printer that prints drugs. Pretty cool, right?
Unfortunately, you can‘t buy the drug printer yet. But maybe soon - professor Lee Cronin is heading a team of 45 researchers working on it. After creating large complex molecules for the last few years, they wanted to take the technology a step further. Showered with a stream of grants for their „chemputer“, we can expect to see results already in a few years.
Putting theory to practice
A few years ago, at a TED conference, Cronin outline how one of his goals was to create “inorganic life” through the creation of evolutionary algorithms in inert matter. An offshoot of this line of thought has developed into a whole new side project of its own for him and his team, and that is to harness new 3D printing technology to download and print drugs.
Cronin describes the reasoning behind the project as a desire to put all of the theoretical and lab based work into a practical application, one that has everyday use and could change the way we deal with drugs on every level. In a statement outlining his ambition he said “Basically, what Apple did for music, I'd like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs." It is a pretty bold statement, but Cronin has a world class team of researchers behind him, and has been creating molecules through self-assembly for the last 10 years – so anything could be possible.
The project is still very much at the drawing board stages, but it has a lot of potential. So far it has required a lot of thinking outside of the box. Cronin describes how they have currently adapted a 3D printer to first print a “mini lab” out of sealant, this lab is basically an area for chemical reactions to take place, allowing the printer to inject chemical inks into various parts of it in order to create the sequence of reactions required to create the drug in question.
These inks would only have to be simple regents, from which more complex molecules could be made from. Cronin points out that most drugs are made from hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, as well as readily available ingredients such as paraffin and vegetable oils. "With a printer it should be possible that with a relatively small number of inks you can make any organic molecule," he goes on to say.
A revolution in the make
What are the implications of such a machine? In essence, it would allow anyone with access to such a printer to create any drug. Naturally, wild fantasies of printing everything from LSD to 2C-T-7 come to mind - and indeed, that might well be where we‘re heading. It‘s stuff for a science fiction story, but it may become reality in the not too distant future.
Other than fulfilling the wildest dreams of every serious psychonaut, such a printer would revolutionise the availability of medicinal drugs in third world countries. Greatest of all, it would allow access to drugs that pharmaceutical companies refuse to produce because they cannot be patented, or there is not a large enough demand to make it profitable.
Cronin says that “"There are loads of drugs out there that aren't available because the population that needs them is not big enough, or not rich enough. This model changes that economy of scale; it could makes any drug cost effective." This would effectively democratise access to any drug.
As you can imagine, the project has received a lot of interest from various parties. From pharmaceutical companies interested in how it could be utilised and integrated into their business model, to generals at NATO who approve of the idea of having a portable, limitless medicine box on the battlefield. It applications are endless, it would even make the discovery and synthesising of new drugs much easier, opening the field right up!
Cronin is hoping to have working prototypes that could be rolled out within the next couple of years. Prototypes that could be demonstrated to humanitarian foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, who in turn he hopes to help roll it out to the developing world.
Does this mean that in the future we will be able to print out our own drugs in the comfort of our home? Who knows, maybe so - but there are bound to be many legal implications around such a device. In any case, it holds revolutionary potential.