At TEDGlobal last month, Lee Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow, described an ambitious idea to create a 3D printer that, instead of printing objects, prints molecules. Cronin believes that if a device could be constructed, pharmacists would be able to download plans for assorted drugs and print them out on site.
Cronin and his team have been looking at drug discovery and manufacturing, and they believe 3D printing could hold the key for easy and cheap drug distribution. If drugs could be manufactured easily, they could be distributed anywhere — even printed at a specific point of need, such as an outbreak area.
Speaking to The Guardian, Cronin said, “Basically, what Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs.”
It is not surprising that Cronin was inspired after hearing a lecturer explain and discuss the possibilities of 3D printing. However, instead of printing aeroplane parts, Cronin said, “I wanted to do chemistry.”
Cronin and his team put together a rudimentary prototype of a chemical 3D printer, dubbed a ‘chemputer’, that could be programmed to make basic chemical reactions to produce different molecules. After several experiments, they discovered that their modified printer could then inject the system reactants, or “chemical inks”, to create sequenced reactions. They have decided to start with “relatively simple drugs”, such as ibuprofen, but if they can establish the principles, then the potential is boundless.
“Imagine your printer like a refrigerator that is full of all the ingredients you might require to make any dish in Jamie Oliver‘s new book,” Cronin says. “Jamie has made all those recipes in his own kitchen and validated them. If you apply that idea to making drugs, you have all your ingredients and you follow a recipe that a drug company gives you. They will have validated that recipe in their lab. And when you have downloaded it and enabled the printer to read the software it will work. The value is in the recipe, not in the manufacture. It is an app, essentially.”
Cronin also believes that these ‘chemputers’ could lead to Star Trek-esque transporters. At TEDGlobal, he was quoted as saying: “For me the cool bit, going into the future, is the idea of taking your own stem cells with your own genes and environment and printing your own medicine. Quickly delivered, cheap, personalized medicine. Does that sound like enough? If not, in the long long run, You could make a matter fabricator. Beam me up, Scotty!”