3D printers have made incredible promises about the future manufacture and distribution of goods. Already we can print out toys, mechanical components, and even foodstuffs. One team, though, has set it sights on something with even more incredible potential: 3D printed pharmaceuticals that can be manufactured anywhere in the world.
The Guardian recently interviewed Professor Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow, who is currently leading a team of 45 university researchers. Among their goals: adapting 3D printing technology to create downloadable pharmaceuticals. The Cronin group mainly works on creating complex molecules, with an eye toward developing inorganic life. Cronin believes that these skills can be applied toward turning 3D printers into drug manufacturing plants.
The idea is still in its fledgling stages, but a pharmaceutical 3D printer would be loaded with simple molecules that would allow it to easily handle carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, plus vegetable oils, paraffin, and other common pharmaceutical ingredients. Cronin told the Guardian that with a relatively small number of "inks," "you can make any organic molecule."
So what are the advantages of printable drugs? For one thing, it lets you create modular drugs tweaked to individuals. Where it might not be worthwhile to manufacture custom drugs on a wide scale, having pharmaceuticals that are printed off in smaller batches would give people access to drugs that are aligned with their unique biochemistry. And there's the portability of manufacture; suddenly, you'd be able to manufacture any drug anywhere in the world.
I do wonder, though, how printable pharmaceuticals would change the drug industry from a business and intellectual property perspective. Would pharmaceutical companies, instead of filing patents, hold their formulas as closely guarded trade secrets? Would we have to worry about potentially inferior counterfeit drug formulas? And if the machines could print controlled substances, how would that affect government control of the printers?
Still, if Cronin and his team are correct, this technology could result in incredible medical and humanitarian benefits. But even as he dreams big, he reminds us that there's still a long technological road ahead before these "chemputers" can become a reality.
3D printer photo by Clive Darra.
The 'chemputer' that could print out any drug [The Guardian - Hat tip to Albert!]