TECH & SCIENCE
IMAGINE if one day, you could walk into your local pharmacy, and the pharmacist could use a molecular printer to print your medication on the spot.
This micro-manufactured medication could be tailored to your individual physiology and your dosage requirements as determined by your doctor.
It’s a vision for the future of pharmaceuticals that a growing number of scientists hope will make medicines more affordable, personalised, and more accessible to rural areas and developing nations.
On top of this, emerging molecular printing technology could even allow scientists to craft compounds that are extremely rare in nature, or simply don’t exist at all.
Say you’re a medical researcher interested in a rare chemical produced in the roots of a littleknown Peruvian flower.
It’s called ratanhine, and it’s valuable because it has some fascinating anti-fungal properties that might make for great medicines.
Getting your hands on the rare plant is hard, and no chemical supplier is or has ever sold it.
But maybe, thanks to the work of University of Illinois chemist Martin Burke, you could print it right in the lab.
In a study published in 2015 in the journal Science, Burke announced the specs of a chemistry’s own version of the 3D printer - a machine that can systematically synthesize thousands of different molecules (including the ratanhine molecular family) from a handful of starting chemicals.
Such a machine could not only make ratanhine step-by-step, but also could custom-create a dozen other closely-related chemicals - some never even synthesized before by humans.
That could allow scientists to test the medicinal properties of a whole molecular family.
And in January this year, chemist Leroy Cronin and his colleagues reported printing a series of interconnected reaction vessels that carry out four different chemical reactions involving 12 separate steps - from filtering to evaporating a variety of different solutions.
By adding different reagents and solvents at the right times and in a precise order, they were able to convert simple, widely available starting compounds into a muscle relaxant called baclofen.
And by designing reactionware to carry out different chemical reactions with different reagents, they produced other medicines, including a drug to fight ulcers and acid reflux.
“This approach will allow the ondemand production of chemicals and drugs that are in short supply, hard to make at big facilities, and allow customisation to tailor them to the application,” Cronin told Science Magazine.
Such reactionware could encourage the production of medicines used too rarely to justify commercial production, as well as for use in remote settings.
One chief concern is that 3Dprinted reactionware could make the production of dangerous or illicit drugs easier, but it’s a concern, Cronin says, that shouldn’t disaude scientists from the beneficial uses of the technology which could save many lives.
One such benefit is that distrib- uted chemical production could stymie drug counterfeiting practices, a huge global problem in which drug manufacturers replace active medicinal ingredients with inert or even dangerous compounds.
Counterfeit drugs are estimated to make up as much as 30 percent of medicines in some developing countries and cost legitimate pharmaceutical companies up to $200 billion per year.
Distributed chemical manufacturing, Cronin argues, could ensure that drugs are made correctly, because each reactionware setup would only be able to produce a single medicine.
It’s certainly an interesting prospect, and one that could see dramatic changes to the pharmaceutical industry in the coming decades.
BUILDING BLOCKS: Scientists are vying for a future where medication could be printed to specification at a molecular level, precisely tailored to individual patients.