The ‘chemputer’ that could print out any drug

July 26, 2012

(Credit: Lee Cronin)

Professor Lee Cronin has turned a 3D printer into a universal chemistry set that could make its own prescription drugs via downloadable chemistry.

Cronin is the leader of a world-class team of 45 researchers at Glasgow University, primarily making complex molecules.

The “inks” are simple reagents, from which more complex molecules are formed.

As he points out, nearly all drugs are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as readily available agents such as vegetable oils and paraffin. “With a printer it should be possible that with a relatively small number of inks you can make any organic molecule,” he says.

The real beauty of Cronin’s prototype system, however, is that it allows the printer not only to control the sequences and exact calibration of inks, but also to shape, from a tested blueprint, the environment in which those reactions take place. The scale and architecture of the miniature printed “lab” could be pre-programmed into software and downloaded for use with a standard set of inks. In this way, not only the combinations of reactants but also the ratios and speed at which they combine could be ingrained into the system, simply by changing the size of reaction chambers and their relation with one another;

Cronin calls this “reactionware” or, because it depends on a conceptualised sequence of flow and reorientation in a 3D space, “Rubik’s Cube chemistry”.

The next stage, also successfully demonstrated, and where things start to get interesting, is the ability to “print” catalysts into the walls of the reactionware. Much further down the line he envisages far more complex reactor environments, which would enable chemistry to be done “in the presence of a liver cell that has cancer, or a newly identified superbug”, with all the implications that might have for drug research.

UPDATE 7/26/2012: Cronin adds the caveat that they are still essentially at the “science fiction” stage of this process.