Scientists 3D-print mini drug factory

23 January 2018

Interview with

Lee Cronin, University of Glasgow

Producing drugs and other molecules to the precise standards expected every time you make the compound and everywhere you make it is a profound challenge for chemists because they need to get the conditions precisely right on each occasion. And, previously, this has caused enormous headaches for the industry. Now Glasgow University Chemist Lee Cronin reckons he’s cooked up a way to solve the problem. As he explains to Izzie Clarke, he and his team divide up the chemical process into simpler steps and 3d-print a series of tailor-made, linked test tubes for each one so that the conditions are perfect for each reaction, and you don’t need a Michelin starred chemist to guarantee you get the right result. The technology could even allow us to make personalised drugs on demand.

Lee - The problem is that chemists are really good at making really complex molecules, but the very best chemist is a bit like a Michelin starred chef in that it’s very difficult to copy them. They’re just so fantastic, they have so much knowledge, so what I wanted to try and do was work out a way to digitise the process of synthetic chemistry so we could get the chemistry to be reproducible. Almost a Michelin star meal in a TV dinner.

Izzie - This is all to do with drug production so how exactly have you been able to do that?

Lee - What we wanted to do is take the process of organic chemistry that’s normally done in a chemistry laboratory or in a big facility and try and translate that into a digital code. So what we did is videoed how the expert chemist made the molecule, identified all the steps, and then made a digital code so we could come up with a sequence of events to remake the molecule. It’s a bit like having a clockwork music box where you wind up the music box and it plays the same tune every time because the actual notes are hardwired into the box. We wanted to do the same thing and capture the code by making a 3D architecture.

Izzie - You’ve actually built a 3D test chamber essentially?

Lee - Yes. And what we would then do is trial all the different routes to make the molecule in steps. We would 3D print not just one test tube, two test tubes individually and wire them together with a tube, we’d print it in one big lump, one big monolith, and then test that all together to check that we had produced the compound. We’d then produce a certified blueprint, and then we’d give that blueprint to another chemist to then use with the code to see if they could then get what the expert had done.

Izzie - How do you know that this actually works?

Lee - This is a very important point. We spent the vast majority of our time taking this idea and making the drug Baclofen, which is a muscle relaxant. Baclofen is a nice molecule because it’s produced at the end as a solid but it’s quite challenging. There are 12 different processes that have to be done in the right order, in exactly the right way to make the molecule. We digitised Baclofen in the laboratory and then 3D printed the mini factories, and then kept adding the reagents and tweaking it, changing the volumes, changing everything until it became absolutely foolproof so that even a non Michelin star chemist, like myself, could actually make the molecule.

Izzie - Can this be applied to any drug or is it still at the very early stages?

Lee - Well, conceptually it can be applied to any drug. The big difference is that we were 3D printing plastic rather than doing it in glass so there’s chemical compatibility, and there’s also a thing about how much you want to make. What we’re doing right now to follow up is to choose hard to make molecules that are in short supply and very expensive, but not made at big facilities, so we can show how it’s really worthwhile and get people using it to make fine chemicals for, say, cancer investigations in the lab and so on.

Izzie - Those fine chemicals, I guess, would be quite important if you need a more personal approach to the drugs that you need to take for some certain illnesses?

Lee - Precisely. You’re an individual and everyone’s disease is slightly different, particularly if it’s unfortunate enough to be something like cancer. So what you might be able to do in the hospital then is work out what particular type of cancer as a function of the genetic and the environmental errors and then just produce a molecule in the right form, right dose, just for you. Then that reduces your side effects, rather than trying to make a molecule that okay for many hundreds of thousand of people we just make one for you.

Izzie - So that is one huge benefit. What are the other benefits for this method over going to big pharmaceutical companies and the like?

Lee - By doing this outside the factory we can digitise drugs and almost do to drugs what the ebook has done. We can basically read any ebook we want, make any drug we need. This is important for drugs that are now longer made, for drugs that are unstable but, more importantly perhaps, if you needed an urgent medicine somewhere else in the world you could just beam in the information by satellite and use that information to make the factory and the molecules at the point of need.


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