Printing out your own pain killers

Could 3D printers ever save us a trip to the pharmacy by allowing us to print out prescription drugs at home?
23 September 2014

Interview with 

Lee Cronin, University of Glasgow


3D-printing is set to revolutionise the way we do chemistry, and could lead to An assortment of drugspharmacies printing out our drugs when we need them, or even home printed prescriptions. Lee Cronin is the Regius Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University...

Lee - I wanted to see if we could take a cheap robot, a bit like a 3D printer, and use it to automate chemistry. So, one of the problems we're having in chemistry is that only certain cooks can make certain recipes and get certain tastes, and what we wanted to do is make all recipes and all tastes available to everyone. By using a 3D printer which is really cheap and becoming very available, we could use a 3D printer in two different ways. First way, is that we use it to print a plastic object or material objects, in this case, like a test tube in which you do your chemistry. Then the 3D printer switches function and turns from test tube printing to actually moving liquids around a bit like an automatic cocktail maker in which you would add the chemicals into the test tube it's just made to allow the chemical reaction to go. And because a 3D printer would know which order to add to the chemicals, it would be very precise and allow us to replicate our chemistry recipe and allow the thing to work in many different places and situations.

Chris - And this would get around the fact that some cooks are better than others. It may not be perfectly replicated by another person but a machine would follow those instructions to perfection time and time again.

Lee - Exactly. So, there are a number of features that come with that. If we could add chemistry into the software, we could beam chemistry around the world. We could overcome drug counterfeiting. And we could also make many, many drugs or molecules available than are available right now because you have to use big manufacturing facilities. In essence, it democratises chemistry in a new way.

Chris - Where would you see this having an application?

Lee - The first thing that we're trying to look at here is trying to go for drug-like molecules or  diagnostic systems where we can use them to treat and diagnose people's health issues. That seems to be a really compelling idea because one of the biggest problems in the world right now is having access to medicine. And if we can allow the system to make different medicines, then, say a person has a certain condition but they know that one particular drug doesn't really work for them but another drug that's maybe rarer or not so available is better to treat them. Then they could simply dial that up instead, and this allows us to personalize the medical process in a slightly different way. So, you have a bit more choice.

Chris - Do you see this having both a domestic and a commercial/academic use? Because I can see how the same phenomenon would apply in my house. I mean, if I knew that I was going to need X dose of antibiotics, rather than go to the chemist, I could get a prescription from you, you know. Say you're my doctor, and I would feed this into my machine and it would effectively... the prescription's like a license to produce a certain amount of a molecule for a certain period of time. I could have a home 3D printer that would make my antibiotics for me for the period of time for which I should be taking them.

Lee - Yeah. Exactly. Now I mean that's a very long-term view. What we want to do first of all is to use it as a research and development tool. One of the biggest problems we have is in science is collaboration. We want to be able to take our recipes and perfect them anywhere in the world. So, maybe in my lab I discover a new molecule. I want to give it to the colleagues in Australia. It may take them two or three months to get the recipe right. However, if they have the 3D printer robot they would just download my code and it would work tomorrow. So, then they could the experiments they need. So, that's research level idea. Take it to a next level - the local pharmacy where you go to your doctor, your doctor would work out what particular condition you have and the special drugs that you need, would  send prescription to a local pharmacy where they have this device, and they would produce them for you, and you'd got to the pharmacy and collect it. Then in years further, then it might get to the point where it's in your house and you then, like you say, have a prescription. And you could then have license to have access to that molecule. And so this then changes the game and ensures that people have access to high quality, diverse number of different molecules. The other thing is if you're a patient that has many ailments, you've got to remember what order to take your pills or you need a particular formulation for the day. Maybe we can think of a system that would actually mix the ingredients you need for that particular day or time, so you're not confused and take the wrong pills.


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